Tag Archives: automaton

Automatons and Poetry

a postulated interior of the Duck of Vaucanson...

Image via Wikipedia

The sequence of poems above, are based on a meditation on Automatons that was published in Zone in 2008. 

The first Automata was created by GOD. According to Talmundic tradition, Adam was created in 5 hours. In the first, his dust was gathered from all parts of the world; In the second, it was kneaded into a shapeless mass (Golem); In the third, his limbs were shaped; In the fourth, a soul was infused into him; In the fifth, he arose and stood on his feet.
“And God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Genesis. Chapter II.

Mythology has many stories about automata, some a wild and fanciful, others may have been based on fact. We can not say for sure what is fact or fiction, so what follows is a description of some of the more exciting reference to mythological automata which are based on accounts from the Ancient Greeks.

Prometheus was reputed to have made the first man and women on earth, with clay animated by fire and stolen from heaven. According to Apollodorus.

Daedalus was a prolific and very cleaver inventor of ancient times accredited with the axe, the level and numerous other mechanical devices. He was reputed to have made statues that were worked by quicksilver and had the ability to walk. A more creditable description is of stone statues that seemed to breath in or move their marble feet. Given Daedalu’s proven abilities he certainly was capable of inventing and making some form of mechanical statue. Which no doubt would have seamed fantastic to the ordinary people of the day.

In ancient China, a curious account on automata is found in the Lie Zi text, written in the 3rd century BC. Within it there is a description of a much earlier encounter between King Mu of Zhou (1023-957 BC) and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi, an ‘artificer’. The latter proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical ‘handiwork’:

The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time. As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yan Shih executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial…The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted.

Following the decline of Greece and Rome, In Europe, Roger Bacon built a talking android head (an ANDROID is a figure in human form), and Albertus Magnus constructed and iron man that he eventually destroyed because of its incessant talking.

In 1578, in a Latin treatise of mechanical instruments, Jacques Besson described the workings of a device which dispersed water, wine and oil through a single spigot.

A rival engineer named Charles Butchered installed a New Mechanical Fountain at the Black Horse Inn in 1708 “which at command runs at one cock hot and cold liquor.” The fountain also served tea, coffee, chocolate, sherry, white wine, cherry brandy and punch.

In the 18’th Century, mechanical pictures (tableux mecaniques) were quite popular. A framed painted landscape would spring-to-life by clockwork.

Mechanical theaters soon sprang-up. The biggest was the one at the gardens of Hellbrun near Salzburg, Austria. It contained over 113 hydraulically operated figures.

In 1722, Isaac Fawkes, a stage magician, displayed a musical clock as part of his act. The clock “played a variety of tunes on the organ, flute and flangolet with birds whistling and singing.” At the Bartholomew Fair, Fawkes gave top billing to a device called the “Temple of the Arts.” Mechanical musicians played while mechanized ships and ducks crossed a painted bay that was supposed to represent Gibralter. The ships were later replaced with a mechanical version of King George’s coronation. And in honor of the Algerian Ambassador, a “moving picture” depicted an Algerian scene in which an apple tree blossomed and bore fruit.

Many supposedly mechanical devices were actually operated by live assistants using strings and pulleys. These included Balducci’s automated drugstore, and “Blackmoore” -which chimed the number of pips on a playing card.

Then came  Jacques de Vaucanson‘s creations which were purely mechanical. In 1738, he designed an automaton flute player “that many learned men thought was human.”

De Vaucanson’s masterpiece was a mechanical duck which performed convincingly enough to fool a live duck. “It quacked, seemed to breathe, ate and drank.”

An American professor named George Moore built a walking steam man in the mid-19’th century. The steam engine in the man’s metal belly powered the legs, while the body was connected to a horizontal bar which in turn was fastened to a vertical post…The steam man walked around the post in circles just like a merry-go-round.

This series of poems were orginally published in  Zone 2008