A mechanical sculpture, statue or doll capable of movement and/or animation.
Primarily 19th-century toys that mimic human (or animal) motion through the action of internal machinery, automata actually date back to ancient times. One of their earliest ancestor were ancient Egyptian religious figures, many of which possessed internal works for animation. Naturally, such mechanisms were hidden from worshippers; a priest behind the scenes would manipulate the figure so that it appeared to talk and move, simultaneously providing entertainment and solidifying the faith of the populace. These ancient priests were actually trained in the art of making automata.
According to Talmundic tradition, Adam was originally an automaton created by God within a five hour period. Not until the fourth hour was he given an soul, and consequently humanity. Interestingly, the notion of man made man has always exercised human ingenuity, even in prehistoric times. There is evidence that, while developing tools and language and executing cave paintings, prehistoric man was also making models of himself, with movable arms and legs.
The ancient Greeks were undoubtedly infatuated with the notion of creating mechanical living beings. We do know that they had highly developed engineering skills and most certainly were able to make partially animated statues which would be used in religious ceremonies. They were probably worked by levers and human power, although there are descriptions of the use of steam and water as a source of power. The Greeks certainly had the technology and creativity to have used steam powered devises. Descriptions of wonderful mechanical people and objects not only came out of mythology but also from other cultures around the world. There seems to have been a common ambition to emulate living things throughout the ancient world.
In the 16th century, Hero of Alexandria's treatise on pneumatica was translated into Latin and subsequently into Italian and German. The writings and drawings were pounced by the Renaissance engineers, who constructed amazing water gardens complete with hydraulic automata.
In the 18th century, Jacques de Vaucanson, a native of Grenoble in France, entered training for the priesthood and, while in college, made some flying angel automata. Because of his work, he was expelled, and his automata destroyed by the Jesuit priests for their "heresy." After a while Vaucanson began earning a living from exhibiting his automata. . .
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Sources: (1) Peppe, Rodney, Automata and Mechanical Toys, Crowood Press; (2) Bailly, Christian, Automata: The Golden Age, 1848-1914, Robert Hale Limited.
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