Wonders of the Clockwork World

This is such a remarkable story and the history of people that I wanted to preserve it for posterity. It is once in a blue moon that someone has a chance to create a masterpiece of art and technology combining them together and this is the story about it. There are few stories like this in all of the history of the human race.

We, engineers, are working presently on giving brains to automata. These are autonomous vehicles and anthropomorphic robots. Consider that all our modern technologies have roots and are based on these four or five hundred year-old foundations without which we would not be able to do much. Playing chess, AI – in a mechanical form they were all present 400 years ago! We are merely repeating or iterating on the ideas of the previous generations of inventors and thinkers. There is so much to take into what we do now and to learn from what these masters have done about 400 years ago!

There are also so many philosophical questions that this story raises. Here’s a thought that Descartes raised once:

And let us recognize that the difference between the body of a living man and that of a dead man is just like the difference between, on the one hand, a watch or other automaton (that is, a self-moving machine) when it is wound up and contains in itself the corporeal principle of the movements for which it is designed, together with everything else required for its operation; and, on the other hand, the same watch or machine when it is broken and the principle of its motion ceases to be active.

And indeed, let us ask, if we could do that mathematically, if we subtracted a living body from just deceased one, what would be left?! What’s left is what people call soul. But what is that mechanism that glues the organism together and makes it alive?! It is appropriate to quote Arthur Conan Doyle:

“What is the meaning of it, Watson?” said Holmes solemnly as he laid down the paper. “What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”

The story also raises big questions about how we organize our societies and educate next generations of explorers. Do you want to know what caused the French revolution? Do you want to learn what China has to do with the industrial revolution and capitalism in England and in Europe? Do you want to see greed and egoism of people? It’s all here!

Enjoy the film and the transcript!

All images are a property of the documentary.

Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams

Documentary presented by Professor Simon Schaffer which charts the amazing and untold story of automata – extraordinary clockwork machines designed hundreds of years ago to mimic and recreate life.

The film brings the past to life in vivid detail as we see how and why these masterpieces were built. Travelling around Europe, Simon uncovers the history of these machines and shows us some of the most spectacular examples, from an entire working automaton city to a small boy who can be programmed to write and even a device that can play chess. All the machines Simon visits show a level of technical sophistication and ambition that still amazes today.

As well as the automata, Simon explains in great detail the world in which they were made – the hardship of the workers who built them, their role in global trade and the industrial revolution and the eccentric designers who dreamt them up. Finally, Simon reveals that these long-forgotten marriages of art and engineering are actually the ancestors of many of our most-loved modern technologies, from recorded music to the cinema and much of the digital world.

It’s often said that if you really want to understand something then what you should do is build it. Now take something like your own hand, do you really understand how it works? What it’s made of? How it functions? Well, one way to find out would be to make a machine that behaves just like that. For a very long time that was an impossible dream. The idea that there could be machines that could behave exactly like our own bodies seemed entirely out of reach, but then around 300 years ago this dream was made real.

This is an automaton, a self-moving machine that simulates the actions of a living being. This elegant young artist first went on show in France in the 1770s. In those days Europe was full of automata like these. They entertained kings and princes and taught moral lessons to citizens. They raised deep philosophical questions and they would ferment revolution. Automata were masterpieces of art and engineering, forgotten wonders of an extraordinary age. This is their story.

For a very long time the construction of machines that could move like humans or animals seemed completely fantastical but in the Middle Ages a new form of technology was developed that could begin to make complex controlled and regular movements. This technology was mechanical clockwork and it would be used in some of the very earliest automata.

The development of clockwork was driven by a new type of social organization: the burgeoning medieval city. For medieval city-states clockwork offered a vital tool to help govern their population. The city was home to explosive tensions. The city air made people free, so it was said in the Middle Ages, and what that meant was a big urban problem. Masters and servants, traders and employees were at each other’s throat. In the city there was plague and there was fire and there was civil strife. The aim was to find the technique that could turn the city into a place of good order and its ideal government.

Clockwork could offer the solution. The sound of the bells reached out across the city bringing together its disparate groups and offering regularity in a world entirely removed from nature. Cities soon began building spectacular clocks to showcase their power and these clocks would become home to some of the earliest automata.

This is Zytglogge, a German word that means ‘time bell’. For half a millennium Zytglogge has stood in Bern, now the capital of Switzerland, and it’s driven by an astonishing piece of clockwork technology.

This is the machine at the heart of the Zytglogge. Its beet, its to and fro movement, is that beat that drives the time system of the city. These complex gears, coiled ropes and moving weights are a system designed more than 500 years ago, and they’re still working perfectly.

Right at the top of the machine is a device which turns the energy of the weights into the system that marks the minutes and the hours. Almost as soon as such devices were built, their fluttering, their oscillation, their regular movement was compared with the movement of the human body.

The analogy between clockwork and the body inspired the engineers of the Zytglogge to experiment, to combine clocks with art, with sculpture, and with design. Clockwork could now be used to bring machines to life. In a world removed from nature these automata offered regularity and order to the city. Hear a crowing rooster – the rural symbol of time has been animated once more, transformed into a machine for the citizens to enjoy.

But Zytglogge and its theater of machines was a vision of the world that the city dwellers had left behind. These machines and their show were designed to bring peace, order and harmony to the city of Bern. The great mechanical clocks of the medieval European towns were intensely public structures. From Bern across the whole of Europe the clocks of the cities taught their citizens lessons in morality and virtue. But all that was soon to change and to change really dramatically. These automata would become private mechanical theaters that showed the universe and the world to the few princes and rulers who governed them.

One of the largest and most spectacular of these new private automata was built in the 1740s in the rich and prosperous town of Salzburg in Austria. It would be created especially for the Hellbrunn Palace a fabulously extravagant summer retreat designed to satisfy the private pleasures of the ruling classes. This was a place of lavish excess, its gardens filled with strange devices designed to entertain and titillate but one machine surpassed them all in scale, ambition and technical sophistication – an automaton in the form of an entire working city.

The automaton was commissioned in the 1740s by this man, Archbishop Jakob von Dietrichstein. For him the machine was the vision of a perfect society, a city populated by well-behaved obedient automaton subjects.

The Magnificent mechanical theater! Imagine that you were a member of the privileged audience here invited by the Prince to see this extraordinary automaton, this amazing spectacle. What you’re looking at is a harmonious, orderly and entertaining vision of the way the city works or, rather, the way the city should work.

As the machine comes to life almost 200 figurines begin to move, the city becomes a kind of vast mechanical opera. Beneath water pressure turns a wheel that is connected via a series of gears to the entire machine. Here this metalwork acts like a set of instructions guiding each of the figures to perform their actions at different intervals. Above the mechanism the workers execute their tasks perfectly, mechanically, automatically. Meanwhile an elegant and aristocratic audience keeps watch with the most minimal of movement. This is a Prince’s vision of a utopian society.

But there’s a darker side to this seductive spectacle. The machine that runs the theater was designed and built by a salt miner Lorenz Rosenegger. The salt miners generated the wealth on which the city relied and which funded this machine, but the salt miners were radicals, insurrectionaries, many of them Protestants. A decade before this theater was built almost all the Protestants in Salzburg had been expelled by the order of its ruler. Rosenegger indeed conducted the work on this theater under armed guard to keep him at his job. It was a technical masterpiece but for the salt miners it was a machine that represented the tyrannical power that ruled them.

The Hellbrunn mechanical theater perfectly encapsulates the contradiction at the heart of all eighteenth-century automata. These were machines built as entertainment for a fabulously wealthy Court Society, but their mechanical ingenuity, their artfully carved exteriors, their very soul came from poorly paid artisan workers. What’s more, the creativity of those workers would revolutionize the automata, so beloved by the aristocracy.

In the 18th century artisans in the workshops of Europe began developing ingenious ways with which to miniaturize the components of clocks and watches. With these new smaller mechanisms automata changed. They no longer had to be rooted to the spot. Thanks to the miniaturized components automata could now simulate new kinds of movements and even make complex and naturalistic sounds.

To see how some of these amazing feats of miniaturization were achieved I’ve come to meet Jonathan Betts, senior curator of Horology at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. When we say small, I think it’s really interesting to think of it about just how small the technologies that go into watchmaking in general and some of the automata is. So you’ve got here some equipment to cut a screw.

‒ Yes, this is just an example of how the really tiny stuff was done.

Maybe it would be clear if we start with how it’s done on a scale we can see more easily.

‒ In the 18th century screws were basically made by forcing a plain steel rod into this thing called a screw plate and each one of these holes has a screw thread in it and if you force a piece of steel rod into that hole and turn it as you do so it will form a thread on the shaft.

‒ This is basically the same thing as a screw plate but it has a single hole in the middle. It’s gonna be difficult for you to see but right at the center is a tiny little hole and that hole that has thread and it’s working on exactly the same principle. You just had to be very, very careful because there’s virtually no metal in the pin that you’re forcing into the hole, it can very easily break off inside there, but that’s basically how it works.

‒ And an example here of the kind of tiny screw, this is from a small watch balance, and if I just place it there you can see on the scale of one penny just how tiny it is.

This tiny screw and its ingenious manufacturing process are just one example of the amazing techniques developed by the clock trade.

‒ There is a tendency for people to forget that every single one of these things has to be made by someone, they don’t sort of grow organically. The craftsman starts with sheet metal and blocks of metal and castings and everything has to be formed in one way or another.

Creating these intricately machined components was an extremely difficult job for the artisans and the work took place in distinctly insalubrious settings.

Automata may have been put on show in palaces and courts and elegant gardens but they relied completely on the extremely skilled work of badly paid and ingenious artisans, men and women of the clock trades. These trades centered on the working class districts of the great European cities. In London for example there would be streets in which each house would specialize in a different component of a watch or clock and then a master would arrive and put those components together.

The distributed and coordinated labor of a vast artisan workforce was essential to making clocks and automata but life as an artisan in the clock trade was tough. In places like this gathered round a table would be half a dozen workers devoted entirely to one specific task of the trade.

They’d be preparing the spring drives that were the source of energy for each clock. They’d be cutting a gear of exquisite tininess inside the watch-work itself. This was hard painful labor that required the most intense attention. Lit only by candle light one’s eyes could fail, you could damage your limbs, and yet while this was challenging and difficult work it was also innovative. It was here that new tools, new machines, new kinds of designs were constantly being developed.

The artisan workforce was a source of constant gradual innovation. What at once needed an entire clock tower could now be made to fit snugly into the palm of one hand. The miniaturization and technical sophistication of the masterpieces of the clock trade had at least one really important consequence, these clocks were able to stay stable and working and vital against changes in their environment. That principle is called homeostasis. It means that however the environment changes, temperature pressure, the bumps and knocks of everyday life, these machines will keep on going reliably and regularly. Homeostasis is so important that for some scientists that was the definition of life itself and so with these techniques provided by the clock trade a huge breakthrough was possible in the design of automata.

Automaton makers could perhaps not just imitate, but simulate living beings. One man in particular began to pioneer the simulation of living things. His name was Jacques de Vaucanson and he succeeded in building some of the most beautiful and complex clockwork beings of the era. Vaucanson was convinced that there was no significant difference between humans and machines. He spent his nights attending anatomy classes studying in extreme and gory detail the way the body worked. By looking closely at human anatomy Vaucanson hoped that he could reconstitute it using clockwork. His ideas were part of a novel way of thinking about the human body that began to emerge in the 18th century. Vaucanson’s contemporaries began to see that the way in which the human body works is essentially automatic. ‘Automatic’ is the key word in the way they describe what humans do. So, here’s a writer in the 1740s, a friend of Vaucanson. He asks: “Doesn’t your body leap back in terror when you come upon an unexpected precipice? Don’t your eyelids close automatically at the threat of a blow? Don’t your lungs automatically work” – he says – “continually like a bellows?” It was exactly those ideas that Vaucanson would use to engineer a machine that could simulate life itself.

By studying the activity of flute playing in great detail Vaucanson was able to build a device that actually played the flute. There was no music box hidden inside this masterpiece. Mechanical lungs and a silver tongue controlled the movement of air, clockwork fingers precisely covered the holes, and Vaucanson even got hold of real skin with which to clothe his extraordinary machine.

The automaton took Europe by storm. It was a glorious celebration of the combination of engineering, artistry and the study of anatomy. Unfortunately, Vaucanson’s flute player does not survive. What made such a splash in the 18th century disappeared somewhere in Eastern Europe in the 19th century and its whereabouts or indeed its survival now completely unknown, but at the time this machine inspired a whole generation to ask about whether there’s any difference at all between mere machines and living beings.

Vaucanson’s work had inspired philosophical debate and much technical innovation but for all his visionary ideas his success was based on the mastery of one seemingly simple mechanical device, circularly shaped piece of metal known as a cam. The beauty of the cam lies in its versatility. Anything that the machine needs to do can be cut into the undulating surface of the cam.

The edge of the cam is simply a way of turning circular motion into up and down or backwards and forwards motions and these motions can be of the most various kind: a feather, a bellows, the movement can be of an amazing range of things, the possibility for variation and design becomes infinite. Cam functions as a kind of mechanical memory for a machine – the more detailed and intricate the edge of the cam, the more complex the actions it can store. Automaton builders focused on this device, constantly refining and developing the cams. Devices would be built that contained whole stacks of miniaturized cams.

One of the most remarkable realizations of cam technology is a device in the shape of a small boy. It’s perhaps the world’s most astonishing surviving automaton.

What’s on this card is a piece of writing made by a 240-year-old machine, one of my favorite machines, one of the most magnificent automata of the 18th century. It’s this boy this, writer. He was built in Switzerland by Pierre Jaquet-droz, one of Switzerland’s greatest clock makers, and the aim was I think to mechanize reason and automate the passions. Jaquet-droz was about 50 years old in the early 1770s when he designed and built this masterpiece. Inside the boy are almost 6,000 parts. What’s astonishing is that every one of these crafted components has been refined and miniaturized to fit completely inside the body of the boy himself. What Jaquet-droz did was to use the technologies of homeostasis of miniaturization to build really a true automaton. Inside the little writer is all his source of energy and all the machinery that drives him. He works on his own!

At his core is a great stack of cams. As these cams move, three cam followers read their shaped edges and translate these into the movement of the boy’s arm. Working together the cams control every stroke of the quill pen and exactly how much pressure is applied to the paper so as to achieve beautiful, elegant and fluid writing. With this sublime machine Jaquet-droz had reverse-engineered the very act of writing. But the mechanical boy contained one perhaps even more astonishing feature: the wheel that controlled the cams was made up of letters that could be removed and then replaced and reordered. These allowed the writer in principle to make any word and any sentence. In other words, it allowed the writer to be programmed! This beautiful boy is thus a distant ancestor of the modern programmable computer.

The writer was one of the most technologically advanced objects of the 18th century but it was also one of the most socially exclusive. Like many other automata of the age it was a private spectacle, only to be seen by the very privileged few. But that was soon to change. At the end of the 1700s the playthings of the aristocracy would be turned against their patrons in the most dramatic way imaginable.

Late 18th century automata were pricey, expensive, they were for posh people, for well-heeled gentry, for aristocrats, courtiers, monarchs. When Jaquet-droz brought his machines to Paris he made sure that only the extremely wealthy could see them by charging ludicrously inflated prices and then proclaiming that no servant would be allowed in to see the show. The courtiers and the automata that fascinated them began to resemble each other too closely and that resemblance was spotted by radicals, republicans and revolutionaries – and they exploited it mercilessly.

A science fiction novel written in the 1770s to attack the aristocratic regime described courtiers as bodies without souls, covered in lace – automata that might look like humans but weren’t. Radical pamphleteers pointed out that while it was easy to be an automaton, like the king, it was very hard to build one, like the artisans. Craftsmen were surely nobler than royalty. The leaders of the French Revolution simply described the king that they executed as a crowned automaton. By describing monarchy as that kind of automatic machine it became possible to destroy it. The machinery of life and death helped inspire the protagonists of the French Revolution.

As the court society that had funded and built many of the grandest automata collapsed these extraordinary machines would begin to change again. Automata became highly sought-after commodities in the newly emerging worlds of global trade.

The late 18th century was a period of dramatic crisis. European society, economics, politics were completely transformed. The old world of court society with its princes and its prelates gave way to a new expansive world of international trade and global networks. Into the European sphere erupted new kinds of peoples: aliens, exotic, foreign, – and European machinery changed too. The automata would soon take on the appearance of these strangers, automata would become foreign and exotic beings.

These two extraordinary machines represent some of the first of a new kind of automaton that began to appear towards the end of the 18th century. It’s likely that they were made for the great London dealer, entrepreneur and automatons salesman James Cox sometime towards the end of the 1700s and they were made specifically to be exported to China. At the very end of the 18th century Europeans were desperately trying to find anything they could sell to the rich and powerful Chinese. James Cox soon realized that while the Chinese were deeply uninterested in most of the trinkets that the West produced, the one thing they did desire was automata. Cox’s ambition was to use his automaton business to reverse the appalling trade imbalances between China and Europe. The point was that China made Goods Europeans lusted after: tea and porcelain and silk, – and the Chinese didn’t seem to want anything that Europe produced, and this was the exception. Cox openly boasted in London that by manufacturing and then exporting clocks like these he could make, as he put it, Asian luxury served the arts of Europe, and at last win cash for the really cash-strapped European trades.

With the Chinese buying up automata in large quantities, London workshops and showrooms expanded and flourished. As money poured in from the East, lavish exhibitions attended by fashionable London residents were held to help promote and sell these new and highly exclusive commodities. In this new world automaton builders started to gain celebrity status, none more so than James Cox’s star employee, a brilliant Belgian emigres to London Joseph Merlin. Merlin cultivated a deliberately eccentric public reputation. He’d appear at showrooms and fashionable parties dressed up as a barmaid with her own drink story, playing the fiddle and traveling around the room on his own newfangled invention – roller-skates.

Everything Merlin did was news and what happened to him became meat for gossip columnists. Sometimes things didn’t go entirely smoothly – he was at a party in Soho and of course he turned up with his roller skates playing his violin, passing drinks around the room. I’ve got here a report of what happened next, written by a journalist at the time:

Having no means of retarding his velocity or commanding his direction, we’re told, Mr. Merlin impelled himself against a mirror of more than 500 pounds value and bashed it to atoms and broke his vial into pieces and wounded himself most severely.

But although Merlin may not have been brilliant as a roller-skater, he was unparalleled as a designer of automata, and these machines would astonish the late 18th century public.

Merlin’s masterpiece was a fabulous swan made entirely of silver. It’s one of the most revered automata of the age and it features both ingenious clockwork engineering and visionary artistic flourishes. By using clockwork to drive these simple glass cylindrical rods Merlin was able to mimic the extraordinary complexity of moving water. As the light catches the twisted and imperfect surface of the rods it creates the unmistakable reflection of water on the underside of the swan. Craftsmanship and artistry of the creature was breathtaking. A mechanical marvel! When we look at the swan executing its actions with extraordinary precision, a masterpiece combining the clockmaker’s art and the skill of the master jeweler, we can easily imagine the effect this device must have had on London audiences in the 1770s. It made Merlin’s reputation as the social celebrity he’d always wanted to be. Celebrity culture at the time flocked to see this device, to gawp in amazement at this triumph of beauty and of technical skill.

The success of devices like the swan and the celebrity of their makers established a huge audience for automata, and as the market expanded, new builders emerged creating ever more ingenious ways to wow the public. The most eminent of these was Wolfgang von Kempelen, a man whose mechanical ability seemed to many almost supernatural.

Von Kempelen became famous for creating a device far in advance of any machine that had ever been built. This is one of the masterpieces of late 18th century engineering. Automata could draw, they could play music, they could write, and now apparently they could play chess! Imagine you were in a showroom in London’s West End in 1784. This is what you would see. You’d be shown into a darkened chamber lit by candles and on stage, in front of you, a machine in the shape of an oriental: a Turk with his cushion, his pipe, and in front of him a chessboard. The chessboard sits on top of this large cabinet, and inside – marvels of eighteenth-century gearing and wheelwork. The master of ceremonies shows you how elegant and splendid this machinery is and then he closes the doors. The machine has to be wound up and his pipe and his cushion removed. And now the Turk is ready to play chess. Clockwork seemed to be mimicking human reason. One of the great hopes of the age had finally been realized – at last the mind could be simulated by clockwork engineering! The Turkish chess player went on tour throughout Europe. Almost everywhere he went, he won. In cafes, academies, and courts – the Turk was able to invent new chess openings and destroy the reputation of numbers of expert players. As almost nothing else could at the time, the Turk demonstrated just how ambitious, just how endless the possibilities were for engineering mechanism and design!

But this amazing machine would do much more than merely entertain, it would inspire one of the most important inventions of the Industrial Revolution. In the middle of the 1780s a group of wealthy English gentlemen met together for dinner and at their dinner party they discussed one of the really major problems of the British textile trades. The problem was, could the process of weaving, one of the most complicated activities in industry, could there be a machine that could do something like that? Well, one of the guys at dinner had seen the Turkish chess player down in London and he’d been completely amazed by what this machine could do. He reckoned that if there was a machine so ingenious that it could play chess, surely it would be possible to design a machine that could weave cloth.

These are mechanical power looms. What used to be done by hand weaving is now done by automatic machinery. The men who first design machines like this have been inspired by the Turkish chess player and I don’t think it’s too fanciful to see in the components of this mechanical animal things that absolutely resemble the moving components of the Turk. The picking arm that throws the shuttle backwards and forwards really does look like the mechanical arm the Turk uses to move pieces across the chessboard. Once upon a time automata have been there for entertainment and now a range of automatic machines like this would revolutionize the world.

The Turkish chess player had helped inspire the mechanization of weaving and the transformation of industry but the machine was not all it seemed. Its amazing ability relied on something none of its audience was aware of. In the end the Turk’s secret was revealed.

As you can see, I’m sitting here inside the Turk. Despite appearances, there was more than enough room inside the cabinet for a fully grown human being to sit in some comfort. From inside the operator could guide the Turk’s arm picking up and moving pieces at will, and they could follow the course of the game by looking up, from underneath, at the chessboard on top of the cabinet. So the Turk was an experiment about confidence. Instead of being a magnificent automaton it was in fact a magnificently arranged device in which a human pretended to be a machine that was pretending to be a human! A vision of the fluidity, the ambiguity that characterized the boundary between humanity and technology, between people and machines.

Now that machines of Industry could really do what humans did, the mechanical marvels of the Industrial Age began to make vast swathes of artisans and craftsmen redundant. Having finally succeeded in building devices that could mimic the actions of the human body the artisans had unwittingly created machines that would now be used to replace them.

But the story of automata does not end here. This is the draftsmen. It is a stunning example of what is perhaps automaton’s greatest legacy: the ability to store memory and then reactivate it at will! All the information to recreate this intricate picture is held in a complex stack of cams that guides the movements of the pencil. This idea of storing information in the changing surface of a disk would, amongst other things, inspire the birth of the technology of recorded sound.

This vinyl disc is materialized memory and it works exactly the way a cam in any automaton works. The groove that the needle follows encapsulates permanently and reliably an extremely complicated amount of information. Placed on a record player that information can be recaptured with a machine that is in many ways the descendant of eighteenth-century automata. Recording technology doesn’t just capture sound, it also tries to bring it back to life. We live in a world of technologies that try to achieve this. In cinema we have a machine that captures the light and then brings it back to life.

We think these are new technologies, but the story of automata shows just how old they are. Automata and machines that allow us to experience again the movements of a world we thought we’d lost. They were built by people who dreamt of a new relation, a better relation between humanity and technology!


Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History


  1. As you said, amazing feat !

  2. Really cool stuff indeed!

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