It never ceases to amaze me that there are whole genres of human exertion waiting to be discovered. Automata is a world with a history dating back to what seems like the beginning of time, when King Solomon decided to have a throne built surrounded by bowing automaton animals and a brass eagle swooping over to crown him each time he sat down. Technically self-automated machines, the mesmerizing world of automata never seems entirely useful, something opposite the goal-oriented, computer-bound, non-movement of many of our lives. (The video below comes via Cabinet of Wonders)
Surely it would have been infinitely easier to walk over to a wash basin and soap one’s hands oneself, but what would be the fun or challenge in that? Badi’ al-Zaman Abu-’l-’Izz Ibn Isma’il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari (1136–1206), a mechanical engineer, craftsman and all-around genius, decided that a mechanical peacock surrounded by soap- and towel-bearing men would be a much better way to do it. This apparatus was among the first to employ the flushing mechanism now used (with unbelievable gratitude) in modern toilets. A pull of the peacock’s tail pumped water through the beak, filling the basin. The pressure of the draining water activated not one, but two humanoid servant figures, one holding soap, and the other a towel. These were said to be the first use of human-like robots in the history of man.
While kings from the Medieval golden age of mechanical engineering employed automata to enhance their glory with the likes of wind-powered, rotating animals on the domed gates of the palace of Baghdad, the Victorians picked up the mechanics of movements and set about defining creepy for future generations. Here’s a video of the Street of Crocodiles by the Quay Brothers:
Cheers to the wonder of movement, and for perhaps the first time on this blog, cheers to the pursuit of the useless.
The images of the Acrobat, Laughing Man, and Pig automata all come from The House of Automata.