Ancient Automatons


Few examples of automatons made prior to the 16th century remain, but numerous documents record their onetime existence. Among the earliest references is one to a wooden model of a pigeon constructed by Archytas of Tarentum (fl. 400–350 bce), a Greek friend of Plato. The bird was apparently suspended from the end of a pivoted bar, and the whole apparatus revolved by means of a jet of steam or compressed air. More complete information about other devices is found in the writings of Heron of Alexandria (fl. 1st century ce), who described devices actuated by water, falling weights, and steam.

Accounts of automatons in China date from as early as the 3rd century bce, during the Han dynasty, when a mechanical orchestra was made for the emperor. By the Sui dynasty, in the 6th and 7th centuries ce, automatons had become widespread, and a book titled Shuishi tujing (“Book of Hydraulic Elegancies”) was published. In the Tang period, from the 7th to the 10th century ce, automatons continued to be popular in imperial circles. There are records of flying birds, an otter that caught fish, and figures engaged in numerous activities ranging from a monk begging to girls singing. After the Yuan period (1279–1368), the creation of automatons seems to have waned.

Click Here for examples of ancient automatons and other such.

If you would like to see some of them in actual action, keep reading.

Click Here for one of my all time favorites, the Silver Swan which dates to 1773.

It is located in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, Teesdale, County Durham, England. The swan, which is life size, is a clockwork driven device that includes a music box. The swan sits in a "stream" that is made of glass rods and is surrounded by silver leaves. Small silver fish can be seen "swimming" in the stream.

When the clockwork is wound the music box plays and the glass rods rotate giving the illusion of flowing water. The swan turns its head from side to side and also preens itself. After a few moments the swan notices the swimming fish and bends down to catch and eat one. The swan's head then returns to the upright position.

The mechanism was designed and built by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) and the first recorded owner of the swan was James Cox who made the solid silver outer surface.

The next device is a writing boy automaton. Click Here to see an actual automaton in action similar to the one portrayed in the movie, 'Hugo'.