Mechanical Splendours

Automaton for Marie Antoinette and exclusive mechanisms

Not so long ago, a short video of a truly uncanny dulcimer-playing wind-up automaton made for Marie Antoinette in 1784 appeared online. The queen was no stranger to extravagance, we know, but why this machine, this wonderful human-like machine, which must have taxed the greatest artisans and mechanics of her time? What was its appeal? We asked Minsoo Kang, author of the newly published  Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. Watch the video below, and then scroll down for Minsoo Kang’s response.

This video shows a demonstration of a beautiful dulcimer-playing automaton that was made by Peter Kintzing and David Roentgen in 1784, which was presented to Queen Marie Antoinette in the following year and purchased by her for the French Academy of Sciences. The object was not a simple doll with a musical device inside it, but a fully articulate construct that actually played a miniature dulcimer by striking its metal strings with tiny hammers. The wondrous automaton was one of many such intricately and exquisitely designed machines that mimicked living creatures during what I have designated as the period of the European “automaton craze” which began in 1738-39 with the appearance of works of Vaucanson and ended at the closing of the century with the performances of the chess-playing Turk of Wolfgang von Kempelen, which was a false automaton.

My book Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination looks at how intellectuals have utilized the self-moving, life-imitating machine as a symbol and a conceptual object from the time of ancient civilizations to the twentieth century. I look at the Enlightenment—when various notions of the human-being-as-machine and the machine-as-representation-of-the-human became ubiquitous in Western discourse—as the crucial period in the history of the automaton idea. For almost a century before the automaton craze, philosophers, scientists, and writers described the universe, the state, and the human body as machines, contributing to what the historian E. J. Dijksterhuis famously called the mechanization of the world picture. When later mechanics began to build and display actual automata with astoundingly complex mechanisms, they were seen as beautiful, wondrous, and rational representations of the entire worldview of the Enlightenment. It is for this reason that the automata were a success not just with everyday people who came to gape in awe at the wondrous machines but with intellectuals as well, as such luminaries as Voltaire, Diderot, La Mettrie, and Mercier commented on the objects as things eminently worthy of study (as reflected in the articles under “automaton” and “android” in the eighteenth-century Encylopédie).

It all began in 1738 when a mechanic from Grenoble by the name of Jacques de Vaucanson demonstrated an automaton flute-player that played a real flute by emitting wind out of a mechanical device inside the object. It proved to be so popular and lucrative for the inventor that he quickly brought out two more automata—another musical figure of a fife-and-drum player and, the most astonishing and famous automaton of the period, a mechanical duck that could swim about, flap its wings, swallow grain, and even excrete little pellets from its rear. After their creator made a small fortune from them, they were sold and taken to London in 1742 where they were also a great success.

The popularity of the Vaucanson trio set off a veritable automaton craze that lasted through the rest of the century as a series of increasingly creative and sophisticated works made their appearance. The pinnacle of achievement in the construction of clockwork automata was reached by the Swiss father and son team of Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz and their collaborator Jean Leschot with their Writer, Draughtsman, and Musician group of 1773-1774. They can be seen today at the Museum of Neuchâtel in full operation, while another Draughtsman-Writer figure by Henri Maillardet, a sometime collaborator of the Jaquet-Drozs, is at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. There was also a series of speaking automata, a group of four by the Viennese mechanic Friedrich von Knauss that was exhibited in 1770; a ceramic head of 1778 by the Frenchman Abbé Mical and its follow-up, a pair of heads that exchanged sentences praising the king; and two others by Wolfgang von Kempelen and Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein that date to 1780. In London, a jeweler named James Cox opened his celebrated museum of curios in 1772 with many automata, including a screeching tail-spreading peacock, a silver swan with a moving neck swimming on the surface of “artificial water,” and a pineapple that opened up to reveal a nest of chirping birds. Such works at Cox’s museum were mostly the creations of a Belgian in his employ with the suggestive name of John Joseph Merlin, who eventually set up his own “Merlin’s Mechanical Museum” in the 1780s.

By the time the popular craze for automata blossomed in the course of the second half of the eighteenth century, the mechanistic worldview began to decline in the learned world, as vitalist and organicist thinkers of the late Enlightenment challenged the machine-model. This resulted in the phenomenon of people being commonly denigrated as automata, signifying those who lack independence, originality, vitality, and creativity. This is just one among countless paradoxes and contradictions in the way people have regarded the fascinating, beguiling, and sometimes horrifying object of the self-moving, life-imitating machine. It is the central purpose of my book to bring light to this great interest as well as ambivalence we continue to feel toward the automaton. Source

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