Automata A Moving Tribute to Genius

Posted on the 2023-08-13 12:22:28 by Abbott Antiques & Collectables.
Automata   A Moving Tribute to Genius

The origins of 'Automata' stretch as far back as the 3rd Century BCE, when, during the Chinese 'Han Dynasty', a mechanical orchestra was made for the Emperor. In the 'Sui Dynasty' (6th to 7th Century CE), water and steam-powered Automatons were fairly widespread in China, as described in the book 'The Book of Hydraulic Elegancies' which was published at the time. Similarly, there is also mention of the existence of Automata in ancient Greece and Rome. During the 1600’s, the prominent Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens created Automata for King Louis of France, including one notable machine which featured an entire fighting, mechanical army. Interestingly, around this time, a Frenchman, Jacques de Vaucanson designed and made a clockwork piece called 'The Digesting Duck', amongst other famous historical Automata. The Duck was particularly ingenious and complex; made from copper, mechanically it was able to eat, fully digest excrete its food - as well as flap its wings and quack! Its' wings alone featured over four hundred moving parts. The design was so complex that, aside from all the tubing and pipes, de Vaucanson had to implement an internal 'chemical laboratory' in order to achieve credible food decomposition!

Later, the growing interest in these complicated pieces was very much due to the genius of a Swiss-born watchmaker, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, whose family produced numerous Automata in the period from 1768 to 1774, in cooperation with Jean-Frederic Leschot. The three most famous, and existing pieces, are 'The Writer', who dips his pen in ink and can write up to forty different letters, considered to be the most complex of the collection. The letters can be changed according to the user’s wishes and the machine features more than 6,000 parts in total. Secondly, 'The Draughtsman', depicting a child who can draw three different pictures, including a portrait of King Louis XV. Thirdly, a seated Lady, 'The Musician', who plays the organ, pressing the keys of the instrument to produce the sound, while her head moves, and her chest can be seen to rise and fall with her breath. She even bows at the end of each performance!

Around the turn of the 18th/19th Century, a Swiss watchmaker, Henri Maillardet, living in England, successfully built a truly remarkable Automaton Boy, capable of drawing four different pictures and writing three different poems. The 'Draughtsman Writer', as it was described, had a memory which was larger than anything created before in a device of its kind, which was achieved by placing the internal workings of the machine within a large base rather than the body of the 'Writer'.

With the decline of skilled craftsmen, the manufacture of Automata almost disappeared until a small revival in the late 19th Century in France, with a similar 'lull' until the 1960's. Today Antique pieces command huge prices of several thousands of pounds and a fascination with vintage pieces has seen a steep increase in their price, and it is rare to acquire one for less than £500, with most pieces being sold for between £800 and £1,000. Whether from the point of view of a Collector or an interested observer, one can hardly fail to admire the sheer genius of those who conceived and created such complicated and fascinating pieces.

The little girl, featured in the photograph, is from our private collection, dates from the 1970's, and is known as the Pedlar Doll. She stands, surrounded by Antiques and, as the music plays, she moves her head and her body, raising her right hand to open the hamper on the table to show the miniature pieces inside.