Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hagiography: Errard de Bar-le-Duc
  • 1554. Jean Errard is born to a family of minor nobility in Bar-le-Duc, capital of the princedom of Bar which was under the rule of Lorraine.
  • 1572. He adheres to Protestantism, attending the reformed French church of Heidelberg.
  • 1573. Errard registers at the University of Heidelberg. He was probably seeking refuge since Protestantism had been proscribed in both Bar and Loraine.
  • 1580. He studies fortification in Italy and enters the service of Charles III of Loraine, to whom he dedicates his book of machines. In the early 1580s he marries Barbe de Rheims, the daughter of a local advisor.
  • 1584. Le Premier Livre des instruments mathématiques méchaniques was published in Nancy. Errard was only 30 years old at the time.
  • 1589. During the Wars of Religion, Errard sides with his faith and serves the princes of Sedan. He fortifies the town of Jametz which eventually capitulates after a prolonged seige. The success of his fortifications gives Errard a strong reputation and he is recruited by the new king, Henri IV.
  • 1591. Henri IV nominates Errard premier ingenieur and brings him into the Conseil Royal. Errard is also granted the right to mint coins.
  • 1591. Errard is at the siege of Chartres...
  • 1592. And Dreux.
  • 1594. Errard explores military issues in his second work: Géometrie et pratique général, published in Paris.
  • 1595. Errard fortifies Sedan...
  • 1597. And Montreuil-sur-mer...
  • 1598. And Amiens. His particular style of fortification is still evident in ariel photographs of the area. As an Ingeniur du Roi, Errard is accompanied by Jean Martellier, his conducteur des desseins.
  • 1598. Joseph Ballot's Modelles artifices de feu et divers instruments de guerre is published. It demonstrates the influence of Errard's work and is also quite rare (Endrei).
  • 1599. Following the treat of Vervins, Errard is elevated to the nobility and continues his work fortifying towns and strutures.
  • 1603. His services are sought by the Elector Palatine.
  • 1607. Errard's son Maximilien dies at Provence.
  • 1610. He dies at Sedan. His nephew Alex inherits his work.
Errard is now remembered for his work as a military engineer rather than his earlier work on machines. Picon holds that Errard's work on fortification, La Fortification Démonstrée, as an example of how Renaissance engineers felt the need to ground their science in practice. It remains one of the few examples of works on fortification executed by non-Italian authors (de la Croix, 1963).

Errard's work on fortifications may have been a pioneering effort but it was quickly eclipsed by later authors. Vauban was apparently the expert on fortifications. Errard's designs were viewed as deficient by later commentators. Lendy, for example, provides very explicit commentary:

"Errard de Bar-le-Duc, in 1591, gave 90-degrees to the salient angles of the bastions, made the flanks perpendicular to their faces, and transformed 2/3rds of their length into Orillons. The ditch was 26 yards wide at the shoulder and 30 at the salient.

This system, which it is impossible to apply to high polygons, is very defective.

The orillons mask the curtain, the defenses of the ditch is oblique, and the ditch itself is traced on wrong principles." (Lendy, p.169)

His work on machines and geometry also contained notable inventions. Errard, for example, was no slouch from the perspective of scientific instruments. The invention of the sector, commonly attributed to Galileo or the Englishman Thomas Hood, should actually be attributed to Errard. He provided the first representation of the device in La geometrie et practique generalle d'icelle of 1594 (williams 2003).

My primary purpose, however, is to explore Errard's book on machines. His machines are, for the most part, original. He does, however, make extensive use of Archimedes screw, which had been popularised by Cardano. He also represents a vertical-axle windmill, an idea that can be traced through the work of Gaultherius Rivius (1547) and Mariano Taccola (1438). He also demonstrates a rod-engine, something also evident in the work of Juanelo Turriano and Ramelli. A rod-engine was later put to use in the Machine de Marly.

In his depiction of a method for spinning wool (plates 25 and 29), Errard cites the original inventor (itself a remarkable thing): Charles Deruet. He was an experienced clock maker. This connection indicates the importance of automaton makers for early technicians.

Errard is also unique for his attempts to depict solid structures in addition to mechanical inventions. Unlike Besson or Ramelli, Errard provided representations of bridges and other solid structures (as did later authors such as Verantius and Leupold: Endrei).

Errard's work, of course, is but one component of the entire genre of the theatra machinarum. Endrei provides a description:

"Leaving aside any question of artistic ambition, if we look at the machine books without any such preconceptions, the are, just like the drawings of Kyeser or Leonardo, rational, expedient representations, the aim of which is to convey technical information, albeit information marked by the spirit and demands of the period. Artistic design assumes priority only exceptionally, as in the case of Besson's representation of a state coach. This we may place to the credit of his engraver, Andruet de Cerceau [sic], rather than to Jacques Besson himself.

A special group of these technical books is remarkable for full-page engravings, mostly in small folio format, accompanied by relatiely short explanations." (p.180-181)

He also makes some other interesting comments about the genre. They inherit their form from earlier works by authors like Valturio or Alberti. He also notes that later works, particulary by the likes of Leupold or de Caus, depended more on text than on illustrations. Errard's own work is notable in that it completely eschews depictions of military technology unlike, for example, Ramelli's work. This finding is somewhat surprising given that much of Errard's professional success was due to his later work on fortifications.

Picon also add some interesting comments on what's still required for the ongoing study of engineering. I need to park them somewhere:

"Engineering looks more like a continent marked by striking contrasts than like a unified field. On this continent, no self-eviden link seems to exist between the organization of the profession and the various activities engineers are involved in. In this context, it may be tempting either to define the engineer through his social identity and aspirations or to limit oneself to a relatively narrow domain of technological expertise." (Picon p.422)

"Between the formalized knowedge that can be traced through courses an treatises, and the everyday decisions made by engineers, there must be for sure some kind of intermediate know-how. This intermediate level is still to a large extent unexplored." (Picon p. 424)

"With its use of technology as an almost counter-natural power, engineering had something to do with cheating, especially in the conduct of war, contrary to the frank and open attitude of traditional chivalry. In that respect, the engineer was comparable to Ulysses, wandering in a strange and threatening world the dangers of which he had to conjure through tricks like the Trojan horse." (Picon p.430)


Buisseret, David (1968). Sully and the Growth of Centralized Government in France, 1598-1610. London : Eyre & Spottiswoode.

Croix, Horst de la (1963). The literature on fortifiation in Renaissance Italy. Technology and Culture. 4.1:30-50.

Endrei, Walter (1995). Jean Errard (1554-1610) and His Book of Machines: Le Premier Livre des instruments mathématiques méchaniques. History of Technology. 17: 179-190.

France-Lanord, Albert (1979). Introduction. In Albert France-Lanord (ed.) Le premier livre des instruments mathematiques mechaniques. Paris : Berger-Levrault.

Lendy, A.F. (1857). Elements of Fortification: Field and Permanent. For the use of students, civilian and military. London : John W. Parker and Son.

Picon, Antoine (2004). Engineers and engineering history: Problems and perspectives. History and Technology. 20.4:241-436.

Williams, Michael R. and Erwin Tomash (2003). The sector: Its history, scales, and uses. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. 25.1: 34-47.

UPDATE December 31, 2006

Langins provides some additional details on Errard on his work on the life of Vauban:

  • Errard was the first French author of a work on fortifications. Dedicated to Henry IV, his work seems to discount his earlier work on machines: “Discourses on mechanical things do not merit this title [of science] at all. There is no question here [in my treatise]... about sketches that might work for someone by chance, but about geometrical demonstrations that give infallible assurance to all.” pg. 33

  • Errard also included a variety of practical facts in his work about recent scientific discoveries (e.g., Sieur de Linar's 1572 discovery that lengthening cannon barrels beyond 12-feet did nothing to increase projective force, heuristics about cannon use such as powder charges should be equal at least to 1/3 of the weight of the ball, and penetration rates of various cannon firing from 200 paces, minimal firing rates, recommendations on materials, and rules of thumb for batter on walls). pg. 34

  • Errard also provided a list of the requisite qualities of the engineer: “he must primarily know the force of artillery, be experienced in sieges, and be a good commander who avoids confusion in the siegeworks.” (pg. 34) Errard also recommends that, direct quote, “it is also very necessary that the Engineer also speak about all parts of the science so that he can make known that which he will have conceived for the execution of his design by geometrical demonstrations (and not mechanical ones according to the manner of the ignorant.” (pg. 34) The engineer must also be a “geometer as much for inventing machines, and other instruments serving for the defense of the fortnress and the work required, as for demonstrating the utility and profit of his inventions, as much for putting them into practice and apportioning the work to be done for the time and means available, thus avoiding excessive expense, which is usually very inconvenient, for lack of understnding of this beautiful science of geometry. Especially when he is besieged, let him think and find the means of relieving those who work, for there is nothing as insupportable as sleepiness [for both men and beasts].” He must also “know something of ordinary architecture (architecture commune) and masonry.” Errard also notes that “It is good to haunt the great” about the importance of fortification. To do this, the engineer must “study to speak briefly and intelligibly” and “that he never consent to a bad design.” Errard also makes a comment that will resonate with even modern engineers: “Let him learn rather to dispute with an ignoramus for it is to be feared, for a man who has science, to meet an ignoramus who has credit, for several reasons that everyone knows.” pg. 35

  • Langins lists the skills and roles embodied in Errard: “soldier, architect, artisan, diplomat, and skillful propagandist.” (pg. 35) Most importantly, Errard roots his approach in the rhetoric of geometry.


One of the roles of that the theatra machinarum fulfilled was as gifts. They could have served as valuable and meaningful gifts to be exchanged between aristocrats and leaders. Natalie Zemon Davis provides a very thorough discussion of the role that books such as the theatrum machinarum may have played in sixteenth-century France.

She notes that books were valued not just for their appearance but for the knowledge contained within their covers:

"The point of all this is that sixteenth-century authors, book-producers and book-possessor inheritors not only patterns of gifts, but also a belief that property in a book was as much collective as private and that God himself had some special rights in that object. By this argument, the book was it its best when given, should not be sold beyond a just price and never be hoarded." (p. 72)

The actual exchange of books wasn't the only way in which books could serve as gifts. Dedications served as a very important means of requesting and securing patronage. Authors and translators, for example, weren't necessarily paid for their work by publishers but were given free copies that could then be given as gifts. Indeed, Bagioli discusses how Galileo used his Siderius Nuncius as a means of securing patronage from the Medicis, and how the Medicis were able to regift the work as a means of securing reputation throughout Europe.

Davis discusses various ways in which dedications could be used as gifts:
  • The publisher uses the gift to entice additional work from authors or publishers.
  • The gift could also be used to express intimate relations "among members of a family, while still calling attention to wider cultural values." (p.78) Davis gives the example of Fathers dedicating works on virtue to daughters. These dedications served as an introduction that established a theme for the works.
Books were valuable as gifts in ways that other items weren't:

"The book in fact had an advantage over the traditional gifts from city governments to monarchs and high officials fro whom they sought public benefits. Golden statues, ups, capes and barrels of fine wine did not necessarily carry with them the message about the hoped-for reform or action, and were more likely to be given away or returned that was the presentation of a copy of a book." (p. 79)

In this context, works by authors like Besson and Ramelli could indeed be very valuable.

Their role as gifts was also an important component of their dissemination. As gifts, books crossed borders and made their way to the countryside. Books also had tremendous value as neutral objects. Their message was explicit rather than symbolic. Davis notes that a gift of eggs at Easter had a very specific contextual and gendered meaning that a book did not.

It should be noted that not all books were used as gifts or carried extensive dedications. Common-place works such as pamphlets, royal edicts and decrees, Book of Hours, or similar "modest works" were not used as part of the cycle of gifts. The theatrum machinarum, however, could in no way be considered modest.



Davis, Natalie Zemon (1983). "Beyond the market: Books as gifts in sixteenth-century France." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series. 33: 69-88.
Davis, Natalie Zemon (2000). The gift in sixteenth-century France. Madison : University of Wisconsin Press.
Mechanics Institutes

What an odd creation: the mechanics institutes. There seems to be a link between the genre that I am currently exploring and the later rise of the institutes (particularly in the colonies). My local academic library has a tremendous collection of fiched documents that are just begging for some sort of analysis. The only document I can find that may have already tapped this resource is a 1969 dissertation by Vernon Foster entitled "The Development of Adult Education in Ontario, 1790-1900." Luckily, Proquest Dissertation has a copy.

While my own investigation of these institutes is still some ways off--I still have that dissertation to finish--I have come across a quote that's worth recording:

"The original purpose of Mechanics Institutes was to instruct factory workers in subjects that directly related to their jobs. However these aims were modified as clerks and shop assistants started to attend and eventually dominate the audiences. Gradually the liberal arts began to to oust the sciences, and in time the vitality of the Institutes declined. Now all that remains are the sad buildings with their ornate inscriptions proclaiming their original status, and which now only offer bingo on a Wednesday night." (p. 13)



Cotterell, Brian and Johan Kamminga (1990). Mechanics of Pre-Industrial Technology. New York : Cambridge University Press.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Images in Jacobean England

Collinson notes that there was some repression of images during the late Elizabethan era. Images appeared neither in the church nor in Elizabethan school primers:

"Nothing demonstrates more forcefully the absolute refusal of so many late Elizabethan and Jacobean religious communicators to appeal to their senses and to popular taste then the pictures which are missing from their books, where you might expect to find them." (p.22)

He continues this line of inquiry by exploring the possible cognitive impact of pictorial want. In the process, he inadvertently invokes Ferguson:

"What do we know about the capacity to form mental pictures of someone who has almost never seen an actual picture? What would our mind's eye conception of Christ consist of if we had been totally isolated from the christian iconographical tradition? The visual imagination of ordinary people in Jacobean England is not a very accessible subject." (p.23)

This trend changed in the 1620s and 1630s as van Dyck and Reubens responded to the patronage of James I and Charles I. The general tone of anti-Calvinism couldn't have hurt.


Collinson, Patrick (1986). From Iconoclasm to iconophobia: the cultural importance of the Second English Reformation. Reading: Reading University Press.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Working Documents: Bibles

Even the King James Bible required working documents:

"They are remarkable. Here, for a brief moment, the making of the King James Bible, at its most crucial phase, can be seen occurring in front of your eyes. Jotted own in quickly assembled notes is the whole scene: the scholars arguing, consulting, losing their tempers, bringing in learned evidence from church fathers and classical authors, testing variants on each other, seeing what previous translators had done, insisting on the right rhythm, looking for the unique King James amalgam of the rich-plain word, the clarity within a majestic phrase, the court-Puritan perfetion. It is as if the ghosts have walked on stage." (p.201)

Nicolson provides an account of the demise of a Jesuit, Henry Garnett, during the early days of James I's reign:

"He shall be strangeld, being hanged up by the Neck between Heaven and Earth, as deemed unworthy of both, or either; as likewise, that the Eyes of Men may behold, and their Hearts cotemn hom. Then he is to be cut down alive, and to have his Privy Parts cut off and burnt before his Face, as being unworthily begotten, and unfit to leave andy Generation after him. His Bowels and inlay'd Parts taken out and burnt, who inwardly had conceived and harboured in his heart such horrible Treason. After, to have his Head cut off, which has imagined the Mischief. And lastly, his Body to be quartered, and the Quarters set up in some high and eminent Place, to the View and Detestation of Men, and to beome a Prey for the Fowls of the Air." (p.115)

Things hadn't changed much 150 years later. Here's Foucault's account:

On 1 March 1757 Damiens the regicide was condemned "to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris", where he was to be "taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds"; then, "in the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds" (Pièces originales..., 372-4).

"Finally, he was quartered," recounts the Gazette d'Amsterdam of 1 April 1757. "This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch's thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints...

"It is said that, though he was always a great swearer, no blashemy escaped his lips; but the excessive pain made him utter horrible cries, and he often repeated: 'My God, have pity on me! Jesus, help me!' The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul's who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient."

Bouton, an officer of the watch, left us his account: "The sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so, and what he took away formed at each part a wound about the size of a six-pound crown piece.

"After these tearings with the pincers, Damiens, who cried out profusely, though without swearing, raised his head and looked at himself; the same executioner dipped an iron spoon in the pot containing the boiling potion, which he poured liberally over each wound. Then the ropes that were to be harnessed to the horses were attached with cords to the patient's body; the horses were then harnessed and placed alongside the arms and legs, one at each limb.

"Monsieur Le Breton, the clerk of the court, went up to the patient several times and asked him if he had anything to say. He said he had not; at each torment, he cried out, as the damned in hell are supposed to cry out, 'Pardon, my God! Pardon, my Lord.' Despite all this pain, he raised his head from time to time and looked at himself boldly. The cords had been tied so tightly by the men who pulled the ends that they caused him indescribable pain. Monsieur le [sic] Breton went up to him again and asked him if he had anything to say; he said no. Several confessors went up to him and spoke to him at length; he willingly kissed the crucifix that was held out to him; he opened his lips and repeated: 'Pardon, Lord.'

"The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.

"Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton, who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him): 'Kiss me, gentlemen.' The parish priest of St Paul's did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St Paul's to pray for him at the first mass.

"After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.

"When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed with this wood.

"...In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o'clock.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Machines in Jacobian London: They Existed!

Early Jacobian London was an odd place: Elizabeth was dead yet Shakespeare still wrote; Copernicus was infamous yet Galileo had yet to publish; Puritans praised the word yet images flourished. James himself was a patron of the art yet his personal motto--Verbum Dei--certainly indicates the reverance for text.

The era was not one of great scientific innovation. Francis Bacon was still known as a politician and not as a scientific innovator. Giordono Bruno visited Oxford in 1588 (the same year as Ramelli's opus), fifteen years before the ascension of James. The scholars he met were versed in ancient languages and Aristotle but were ignorant of mathematics or astronomy. He referred to Oxford as "a constellation of ignorant, obstinate pendants: a herd of donkeys and swine." (Nicolson, 2003)

Machines were not unknown in this early modern England. For example, Roger Cecil--James's chief advisor--was a collector of machines. His architect, the great Inigo Jones, was also interested in machines. Jones and Ben Jonson created a masque for Cecil that features "flying devices, cloud machines, diaphonous glasses and the new landscape scenery." (Hulse, 34) In a note decorating the margins of his copy of Vitruvius Jones stated: "being in Parris the yeare. 1609. a Prouancall maad a triall to make a Perpetuall mosio[n] but did not Reusire." (Higgott, 26). A perpetual motion machine had also been demonstrated by Cornelius Drebbel.

The mining machines depicted by Agricola also had a place in England. Elizabeth recruited a group of German miners--the Haugs--to explore copper mining operations throughout England. Particularly rich veins were found near the Cumberland town of Keswick. They extracted roughly 600,000 poinds of copper ore and were the process of completing a smelting house and furnaces at Keswick. On 8 October 1566, the Earl of Cumberland refused to allow the Germans to remove the ore. The machines included crushers and stampers, perhaps resembling the equipment depicted by Agricola in book VIII of his De Re Metallica. (Ash, 2001)

Other early machines included grain mills--there were thousands at the time of the Domesday Book--and the use of water power for reducing ore. Pumps were also used for draining water from mines. In 1486, for example, the monks of Finchale spend over 9-pounds on a pump, including housing, fittings, and horses. Their accounts even include an ongoing expense: "de la pompe." In the second half of the sixteenth century, a series of different applicants recieved patents for devices related to draining mines. Sir William Cecil, Roger's father, appears in connection with some of these machines. A letter from William Humfrey dated July 1565 "recommends an Almain engineer, who can raise water one hundred fathoms high, by a newly invented engine." (Pratt, 779)

Pratt describes another interesting twist in the history of machines. While my instinct is to separate mathematical instruments such as Besson's cosmography from industrial machinery. But in April of 1598, Edward Wright--Cambridge Master of Arts--was granted a patent for a "mathematical instrument" that was a water-draining device. It was conceived "by long and painful study of the mathematical sciences."

In the late 1580s, one Peter Morris was also involved with two considerable early engineering products. One involved draining the fens surrounding Ely "by certain engines and devices never knowen or used before." The purpose of the other project was pump water into London using a wheel installed below London Bridge. The wheel was about twenty feet in diamter and fourteen feet long. The wheel drove sixteen force-pumps with seven-inch cylinders.

[ed. It seems odd to read Pratt's work. It was penned in the late twilight of the Victorian era, just before The Great War change our relationship with machinery forever.]


Ash, Eric H. (2001). "Queen v. Northumberland, and the control of technical expertise." History of Science 39:215-240.

Higgott, Gordon (1983). "Inigo Jones in Provence." Architectural History 26:24-34,123-131.

Hulse, Lynn (1991). "The musical patronage of Robert Cecil, First Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612)." Journal of the Royal Musical Association 116.1:24-40.

Nicolson, Adam (2003). God's secretaries: the making of the King James Bible. New York : Harper Collins.

Pratt, Julius W. (1914). "Machinery in sixteenth-century English industry." The Journal of Political Economy 22.8: 775-790.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


The machines depicted by Besson and Ramelli weren't the only machines of their day. They competed with others that caught the attention of both nobility and commoner. The automatons depicted by the authors of antiquity promised to entertain and improve the lives of man.

In 1618 Frobenius published a work entitled "Epistolae Fratris Rogerii Baconic, De secretis operibus artis et naturae, et de nullitate magiae." It was edited by John Dee and contains a list of marvelous classical machines, all of which operate without the benefit of magic. Many claimed that the ancients had tremendous skills with machines, which Renaissance men had yet to surpass. Agrippa's "De Occulta Philosophica Libri Tres" (1531-1533), for example, praises mathematics and mentions a wide variety of different ancient machines:

"The waling and speaking images made by Daedalus are one example. Others are the automata mentioned by Aristotle: self-moving tripods and serving maids constructed of gold which waited upon guests at banquets. Of a similar kind are speaking statues of Mercury, the wooden dove of Archytas, the marvels of Boethius reported by Cassiodorus, an image of Diomedes which blew a trumpet, a hissing bronze snake, and artificial birds which sang." (Schumaker, p. 257)

The wooden dove was particularly fascinating. Jerome Cardan discusses the dove in "De Rerum Varietate" (1557). Animated copies of singing birds also appear in the works of Ramelli and Salomon de Caus. Earlier examples include hydraulically driven Islamic models and the mechanical models illustrated by Villard de Honnecourt. Works describing these machines became increasingly popular as the Renaissance progressed.

Schumaker notes that Ramelli's work is of a different kind than the lists of inventions and "magico-mechanical marvels" that appear in Fludd's "Tractatus Apologeticus." Wilkin's "Mathematical Magick" is also a departure. Whereas Dee claimed that the ancients had utilized lost knowledge to construct their magnificent edifices, Wilkins cited reasons related to the economics of labour, religion, and ambition. Wilkins also attempted to provide some explanation of automata (although he does not mention Hero's "Pneumatica"). Indeed, Wilkins's work is considerably more palettable to modern readers than some of the earlier works:

"Nevertheless the modern reader finds himself, throughout his reading of Wilkins, on fairly comfortable ground. The awe apparent in earlier discussions is gone. Modern wisdom is fully equal to ancient, and the respect paid to Pythagorean 'proportions' and 'harmonies' has disappeared." (Schumaker, p. 268)

Automatons have an important role in the history of technology. Price explains that man's need and desire to create automatons as way of understanding the world is deep seated. Examples include Egyptian statues with speaking tubes, Mark Anthony's depiction of Caesar rising from the bier, the devices of Vulcan, the Jewish Golem, and the alchemical homunculus of Parecelsus. These biological automata were related to clockwork and the notion of feedback and control. Later inventions by the likes of Vaucanson have recieved considerable attention yet these earlier works remain under-studied:

"Amongst historians of technology there seems always to have been private, somewhat peevish discontent because the most ingenious mechanial devices of antiquity were not useful machines but trivial toys. Only slowly do the machines of everyday life take up the scientific advances and basic principles used long before in the the despicable playthings and overly-ingenious, impractical sceintific models and instruments." (Price, p.15)

Biological automata gradually became more popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Price notes that many of these devices depicted apes, literally beast-men capable of human activity but devoid of rationality. This motif was probably borrowed from Islamic precursors and anticipated Cartesian principles of dualism. Interestingly, these ape-automata may have been the source of inspiration for Swift's Yahoos: a tribe of senseless ape-men that confronted the indefatigable Gulliver. Of course, Yahoos are now just users of a particular Internet search engine. This unintentional etymological connection between medieval ape-men and cyber-surfing info-drones is certainly intriguing and deserves additional consideration.

The gearing and increased sophistication of clock-driven automata emerged in conjunction with larger hydraulic projects such as the draining of the English Fens or the Flemish low-lands. Additional influences appeared in the form of the printed work. While the simple waterclocks and sundials of Vitruvius's "De Architectura" were available from 1486, Hero's devices only appeared with the first publication of his work in Latin (1573) and Italian (1589).

The three automata of Vaucanson provides an interesting example of the increasing interest in automata. In 1738, he put three different automata on display. Two of them resembled humans playing wind-instruments. The third was a defecating duck. Vaucanson was able to leverage the popularity of this display into fame and fortune, garnering plum ministerial appointments and a nomination to the Academy of Sciences (no small feat for an artisan).

Riskin presents one possibility of why these automata were so popular: "...their value as amusements lay principally in their dramatization of a philosophical problem that preoccupied audiences of workers, philosophers, and kings: the problem of whether human and animal functions were essentially mechanical." (Riskin, p. 601)

His work should not just be reduced to a mechanistic analysis of life and art:

"It seems to me, on the contrary, that the automata epressed, not mechanistic conviction, but the tug-of-war between such conviction and its antithesis. By building a machine that played the flute and another that shat, and placing them alongside each other, Vaucanson, rather than demonstrating the equivalence of art and shit as the products of mechanical processes, was testing the capacity of each, the artists and the organic product, to distinguish the creatures that produced them from machines. In other words, I find the most striking feature of Vaucanson's automata to have been their simultaneous enactment of both the sameness and the incomparability of life and machinery." (Riskin, p. 610)

Fryer and Marshall provide an analysis of Vaucanson's motives in creating the "defecating duck." They maintain that his goals extended beyond entertainment to include an exploration the basic premises of scientific modelling.

Bedini notes that both Ramelli and de Caus were influenced by Hero. He also calims that the waterworks of the chateau at Heilbrunn, built for the Archbishop Marcus Sitticus in about 1646, was based on the designs of de Caus.


Bedini, Silvio A. (1964). "The Role of Automata in the History of Technology." Technology and Culture. 5.1: 24-42.

Fryer, David M. and John C. Marshall (1979). "The Motives of Jacques de Vaucanson." Technology and Culture. 20.2: 257-269.

Price, Derek J. de Solla (1964). "Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy." Technology and Culture. 5.1: 9-23.

Riskin, Jessica (2003). "The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life." Critical Inquiry. 29.4: 599-633.

Schumaker, Wayne (1976). "Accounts of Marvelous Machines in the Renaissance." Thought. 51.202: 255-270.