Monday, May 23, 2011

Antique Automata

     An automaton (plural: automata or automatons) is a self-operating machine.  These hold fascination for me - especially some of the older ones shown in this posting.  They've been around for a long time (since Greek times) but the golden age is considered by many to be 1860-1910.   During this period many small family based producers thrived in Paris.  The main French makers were Vichy, Roullet & Decamps, Lambert, Phalibois, Renou and Bontems.

      In addition to being fine examples of mechanical competence, these early machines were used in magic acts and performances to demonstrate mystical abilities (before audiences were sure about how these machines worked).  Good examples are those used by French magician Robert Houdin.  There is also a famous example of a hoax  -  The Turk (a chess-playing automaton), which dates back to the late 1700s (photo below toward end of posting).  This supposed mechanical chess player beat scores of opponents, but was ultimately revealed to have been a hoax (there was a small person was hidden inside the contraption).  Nevertheless, the machine is still quite beautiful.

     I've also included in this posting a piece I made recently (last series of photos).

close up of clown from Automatomania

A few good sites to check out:

Automatomania -   Excellent collection with good photos.

Dugnorth Automata blog  - A great source for all things automata

Deskarati -   (good succinct history of automata)

Atlas Obscura's Amazing Automata section - A great site for anything bizarre and obscure (its also on this blog's list of links on the right side bar).  

Fantasma Magic Shop in New York City - This is one of the few great magic shops left.  It's located right near Penn Station and well worth a visit (books, tricks, costumes, antiques, live birds!)   They carry some great pieces of antique automate too.  And the best part may be the mechanized Houdini that comes down from the ceiling and gets out of a straight jacket (I understand the shop's owner is a big Houdini fan and expert).

click images to enlarge

Henry Phalibois Automaton of a Chinese Magician and Vanishing Assistant, c. 1920
From the site of Skinner Inc.

Top view

A flea circus in a suitcase

Vichy Acrobat

The Undertaker

Baking bread

A writing woman - this was a popular type of automata - one where the machine writes a name or a message.

A reconstruction of the hoax automata, The Turk.  The original was built in 1770s and appeared to be a "thinking" chess playing machine, but there was a small person hidden inside the box.

Here's a piece I made - it's my first shot at a very simple, hand cranked automata:

In process:


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this post. I remember seeing a magician atomaton machine a restaurant my parents took me too when I was younger and I saw the one at the Phantasma Magic shop you mentioned above. Those things are so cool. I'd love to have one in my basement.

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