Enter the maze

Automata: the good, the bad and the cheaters (and a bit of magic too)

The clockwork orange tree

Movie animatronics create some breathtaking computer-controlled movie monsters, but the history of making things come alive and move the way you want them to stretches way beyond the Hollywood hills. Automata, mechanically animated figures and creatures, go way back in history and show just how clever inventors the world over can be. The contraptions they built were the forerunners of today’s computers, and if these inventors were at work now, they would be computer scientists. So let’s have a look at some of the more interesting and influential characters in automata history.

Boat the beat

The Islamic inventor Al-Jazari really moved things forward in 1206 when he wrote his book the "Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices". In this he described many of the mechanical devices and designs we still use today, like camshafts, rotary motors, methods for water pumping and so on. He also described ways to build complex programmable humanoid automata, which had real applications to improving people’s lives. One of his inventions was a hand washing automaton, which stood by a bowl of water until the lever was pressed. At that point the water drained (using a method similar to today's flushing toilets) and the automaton refilled the bowl. One of his most interesting inventions was a boat with four automatic musicians. This musical group floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal parties. His cunning mechanism had what we would probably think of today as a programmable drum machine. A series of rotating pegs would bump into small levers that would then operate the drums. Moving the pegs around would make the drummer play different drum patterns.

Dinner, music and a duck

In the 1700s automata had become very popular with the rich and famous. They were must-have toys to impress your friends. Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson, the tenth child of a poor glove maker, hit the scene and became the bad boy of the automaton makers. Through his early ingenuity he managed to get funds to set up a workshop in Lyon where he set about building androids, human-like automata, which would serve dinner and clear the tables for visiting politicians. It wasn’t to be: a government official decided his work was "profane", and ordered that the workshop be destroyed.


Undaunted, in 1737 Vaucanson built The Flute Player. This was a life-size figure of a shepherd that could play twelve different tunes on the pipes, a bit like a big, flute playing iPod. The mechanics of the shepherd’s fingers were poor though, so Vaucanson gave him gloves to cover them. His dad must have been proud. In 1738, he presented his flute player to the French Académie des Sciences. The scientists recognised that Vaucanson’s design was more than a toy – it was programmable, and therefore a revolutionary step towards mechanically created life-like machines. He went on to create a tambourine player and, famously, a mechanical duck. Vaucanson even built the world’s first flexible rubber tube for the duck, which allowed it to eat and poo. He did cheat a bit on the effects: what went into the duck wasn’t the same as what came out of the duck. Vaucanson had stashed a hidden compartment of 'pre digested food' in the duck to make the gross-out joke work. You might not have expected to learn how to make a fake pooing duck when you started reading this article, but that mechanical feat is nothing compared to what we’ve got next.

Check mate or cheat?

In 1769 the naughty Hungarian Wolfgang von Kempelen took a chess-playing machine called 'The Turk' round the courts of Europe, making a florin or two on the way. The Turk was, he said, an automaton that could play a blinding game of chess. It fooled many but was eventually exposed as a hoax. Inside the box, rather than a complex chess playing machine, was a real person, good at playing chess, who was actually responsible for the puppet’s moves above. Kempelen did redem himself though, by inventing one of the first human operated speaking machines. This proved a real advance in phonetics, the science of studying human speech processes. In fact the Wolfgang von Kempelen Computing Science History Prize was (much) later named in his honour.

Stage struck like clockwork

The use of automata in magicians’ stage shows came to be popular in the 19th century. There is something exciting about watching mechanical people do real human things, sometimes even performing magic tricks. The famous magician Robert-Houdin was a popular user of automata. The story goes that as a kid he saved up for books on clockmaking so he could get a decent job, and by mistake he was given books on magic. From there he never looked back. While he worked in a clock shop he also developed automata including a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton doing the famous conjuring trick the cups and balls. After he became a full time magician, one of his most famous effects, the Marvellous Orange Tree, put an automaton at centre stage.

A Magical Clockwork Orange

This amazing stage illusion involved first vanishing a spectator’s handkerchief, then doing various tricks with a lemon where, with each trick, the audience believed the handkerchief would reappear. It never did. Finally assistants would bring onstage a small orange tree planted in a box. The orange tree’s branches were bare, until Robert-Houdin magically caused them to sprout orange blossoms. Then from the blossoms grew oranges, which the magician would pick off and throw into the audience to prove they were real. The last orange from the tree would then split open and two butterflies would appear carrying the spectator’s handkerchief. The tree and the butterflies were of course exquisite mechanical clockwork automata, programmed by cogs to pull off this amazing trick. Even today magicians the world over cherish and collect automata because of their beauty and their clever programmable craft.

Magicians even recreate the timeless effects. So it’s perhaps not surprising that one of the largest collections of historical and up-to-date magic automata belongs to a magician and pioneer computer games developer – Richard Garriott from Austin, Texas.

Today learns from yesterday

Today’s robotics researchers owe a lot to those past pioneers who built automata. From developing fundamental principles on how lifelike movement can be achieved, to entertaining us in magical ways, to helping us begin to understand what’s socially acceptable in robot design, we’ve learnt more than you’d expect from a history that includes chess-playing hoaxes and pooing ducks.