In our previous article about automata, we discussed ancient machines that brought little people to life. In this article, we’ll discuss modern-day automata. The word “modern” in relation to automata basically means “not ancient”. In the strict sense, automata are little machines that mimic human movements or activities. The Modern Automata Museum contains some automata that are animals doing animal things. If a museum includes chickens plucking or cows chewing cuds, then who are we to argue?
Automata have been described as “Princely Toys”. This phrase is so commonly associated with automata that a documentary was made in 1976 by that title. The documentary “Princely Toys” featured machines from the Jack Donovan’s collection. He was a famous British automata collector. I tried to find additional information on him, but biographical links pointed to a Wikipedia article about a different Jack Donovan. This mysterious man of machines seems to elude my cyber sleuthing. His collection is now held by the York Museum of Automata. Sadly, my inquiries indicate that the museum is now closed. Clips of the documentary can be found on YouTube. One of his more famous pieces is an automaton of Cleopatra reclining with snakes. Let’s hope that his collection will find a good home with another collector or another museum. Cleopatra died once and once is enough.
In another clip of “Princely Toys”, the filmmakers show Mr. Donovan’s vast collection of circus automata. The tiny mechanical performers were designed to perform tricks and acrobatics that would be performed by real people. Not all automata are intended to entertain or amuse. Some artists create an automaton to make a statement or to spark thought.
The Modern Automata Museum has a clip of various modern automata built to speak out against war. The exhibit is called “Against the Idea of War”. There are general statements about the destruction that comes with war and statements against dictators and tyrants. Other machines reference specific wars. The current conflicts in the Middle East are common themes.
Some people love automata. Some people find them creepy. I find them eerily beautiful. There’s something about the soulless mimicking the ensouled, the insensate masquerading as sentient, and the inanimate anthropomorphized into animate that makes some of us a little uncomfortable. Automata are built to reflect specific moments of our lives. They show us at play, at rest, and at war.
These little machines have fascinated the public since their inception all those centuries back. Water and sand once powered these machines. Today we have wood and metal working as the hearts and minds of automata.
Damaged and not yet refurbished automata tend to have the highest “creep out” factor. The automaton harpist by Vichy dates back to the 1880s. Her dirty face, slit throat, non-existent harp, and broken arms juxtaposed with her lovely music and blank “everything is normal” stare makes me feel the need to turn on some extra lights. Perhaps that’s why damaged automata are so creepy. They continue to perform their tasks. They look around with their blank stares and flaccid smiles pretending as if their hair had never been on fire. Some of these machines are more befitting a horror movie than a museum.
“Nancy” is another automaton that haunts me. She sits and sews. Her detached bemused expression makes me look for a pile of bodies behind her. She seems to be coming off some kind of psychotic break. She’s sitting there sewing like everything is normal now that a few unsavory types are no more. She reminds me of Ed Gein calmly eating cereal out of a bowl made of a human skull. I’m telling you that woman is sewing a death shroud! Perhaps, I’m alone in that observation and Nancy isn’t hiding a trail of bodies behind her murderous sewing ways. Perhaps I’m the one who needs to visit a doctor for some “emotional housecleaning”.
Love them, hate them, or have a love-hate relationship with them, modern-day automata are here to stay. And that’s pretty ironic, considering the age of computer technology. Because, when you think of automata, you think of something quaintly old-fashioned, in a steam punk kind of way. But the secret word for the new era of automata is of course: robots. But that’s a long, separate theme for itself…
These wild machines have been entertaining us and creeping us out for centuries. Sometimes their intent is to entertain and sometimes they have a deeper meaning.
Regardless of the creator’s intent, between Nancy and the harpist, I won’t need to set an alarm tonight: I simply don’t anticipate much sleep with all those lights on in the room.
By the way: if you’re wondering where the cool image at the top of this blog post comes from, check out Nexi, the Mobile Dexterous Social Robot designed by the MIT Media Lab’s Personal Robots Group. We think that Nexi solidly represents the future of Automata. And you could easily write an entire blog post about Nexi alone (hey, that’s maybe not such a bad idea!).