Friday, October 7, 2011
Thank You Very Much, Mr. Robot
We tend to think of robots as the stuff of science fiction, or, today, technology fact. You’ll even find a few stomping around the television channels this month, in honor of Halloween. But nineteenth century young ladies and gentlemen were no strangers to robots. They called them automata. Some of our Nineteenteen family (such as a young lady who’s written two books about a clockwork prince—cough, cough) have done extensive research on automata, so please chime in!
In some cases, automata were created as children’s toys, something to amuse the little ones. Watchmakers and music box makers hoping to make a little extra income put them together. Powered by wind-up clockwork, clowns did simple flips over ladders, birds sang from gilded cages. The masters of these trinkets lived in Germany and France, and the French Revolution took its toll on their customers. So, they turned to making ever more elaborate devices for grownup boys and girls, the royalty and nouveau riche of Europe.
Some of the automata developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth century are amazing! Gentlemen in gilded robes play flutes; copper ducks move about, swim in water, quack, and pretend to eat. The mechanical creatures wrote poetry, drew pictures, and waltzed together. One marvel, a present to Marie Antoinette, was a court lady who played the struck dulcimer, and her tiny head and eyes moved as she worked.
But just as Hollywood tends to make robots appear more intelligent and capable than they truly are, so too some automaton makers decided to show off their skills. A German gentleman created The Turk in 1770 to impress the Empress Maria Therese of Austria. The automaton was the size and shape of a man, sitting behind a chess set on top of a cabinet. You could take a seat opposite him and play a game. His arm moved pieces to counter yours, and if you tried to cheat, he would either wipe your pieces off the board or move the piece you’d cheated with back to its original place.
He tended to win, even supposedly beating Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon as the various owners took him on tours all over Europe, England, and America. Unfortunately, his abilities were all the product of a chess master hiding inside the gears. A sliding seat allowed the fellow to escape notice as the cabinet doors were opened. The truth was never fully revealed until after the machine’s destruction by fire, and some today still question the revelation.
Eat your hearts out, Disney Imagineers.