Sunday, December 04, 2005


For those of you who are interested in mechanical automata like our whistling birds, birds in the box, whistlers (as well as the more simple automata on our cuckoo clocks for example) I would highly recommend a book by Tom Standage entitled The Turk. In it he runs through a dizzying history of one of the most famous automata and its association with people like Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, Beethoven, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Babbage.

"Automata are the forgotten ancestors of almost all modern technology. From computers to compact-disc players, railway engines to robots, the origins of today's machines can be traced back to the elaborate mechanical toys that flourished in the 18th century. As the first complex machines produced by man, automata represented a proving ground for technology that would later be harnessed in the industrial revolution. But their original uses were rather less utilitarian. Automata were the playthings of royalty, both as a form of entertainment in palaces and courts across Europe and as gifts sent from one ruling family to another. As well as being a source of amusement, automata provided a showcase for each nation's scientific prowess, since they embodied what was, a the time, the absolute cutting edge of new technology. As a result, automata had a far greater social and cultural importance than their outward appearance as mere toys might suggest."

-From The Turk, by Tom Standage, New York: Berkley Books 2002

"The passion for automatic exhibition which characterized the eighteenth century gave rise to the most ingenious mechanical devices, and introduced among the higher order of artists habits of nice and neat execution in the formation of the most delicate pieces of machinery. Those wheels and pinions, which almost eluded our senses by their minuteness, reappeared in the stupendous mechanism of our spinning-machines and our steam-engines. Those mechanical wonders which in one century enriched only the conjurer who used them, contributed in another to augment the wealth of the nation; and those automatic toys which once amused the vulgar, are now employed in extending the power and promoting the civilization of our species."

-From Letters on Natural Magic, by David Brewster, London: John Murray 1832

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