*early modern automata - machines for pleasure

Oliver Loeb Mills discusses the pleasure of pointless machines

For all the benefits that modern machinery has brought, feeding us, housing us, clothing us; one must appreciate the worth of the machines that fulfil none of those practical roles. Machines whose sole functions are to entertain and be beautiful. Objects to marvel at and appreciate, that have no interest in creating material change for those they are created for. Some of the finest examples of these machines are the Renaissance and early modern automata, machines that entertained emperors and sucked in endless crowds, eager to see them. Behind these machines there was scientific endeavor; the creators of these machines sought to push the boundaries of mechanical possibility but this was always conducted in the context of beautification and entertainment.


In the Metaphysics, Aristotle argued that philosophy followed from wondering about the cause of things, using automata to illustrate his point; ‘‘For all men begin, as we said, by wondering that things are as they are, as they do about wondrous automata.[1]’ The automata of the Renaissance and early modern period continued this classical tradition. They were objects that served little purpose other than to be wondered at. The contemporary pleasure of these machines is that one can find countless examples of them, either in accounts or drawings or still functioning today. In 2009 the Venetian designer Renato Boaretto recreated the mechanical lion that Da Vinci had presented to the French king Francois I; a lion that could walk under its own power, move its head, and when touched by the king’s sword open its body to reveal the French royal symbol, a lily. Possibly more impressive than this modern recreation, if only for its longevity, is the Silver Swan constructed by James Cox and John Joseph Merlin in 1773. The swan, even taken in isolation of its mechanical basis, is a thing of beauty. The silver, sloping neck and the gentle, sweeping feathers are fine enough to be viewed in their own right, but it is the combination of these with the complicated clockwork system that turned the Silver Swan into a phenomenon which was still being toured and exhibited almost a century after its creation. Mark Twain came across the swan at the 1867 Paris world’s fair and wrote that it "had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes."


The blurring of the boundaries between artifice and nature was one of the driving forces behind the pursuit of automata. Much of Renaissance discovery and creation was spurred by attempts to cross this divide. Bernard Palissy created ceramics out of live animals, seeking to cross the dividing line between nature and art by emulating the heat and primordial conditions he thought bore life. In another effort to blur the two, Regiomontanus created an iron fly which was said to have flown out of his hand at a banquet, circled, and returned to him. Palissy’s plates and Regiomontanus’s fly had a duality of purpose, to inform the creator and to entertain the audience. They advanced their knowledge by creating objects that had no external purpose other than to be marvelled at. The panegyrics written about these creations highlight the impact that viewing them had on their intended audiences; John Ray compared ‘those minute Machines endued with life and motion’ to ‘[any] work of Art of extraordinary fineness and subtlety.” Ray was not responding to them in mechanical isolation but rather placing them in their appropriate field, art. The isolation of the machines that we use today, pushed into their functional cul-de-sac, is a betrayal of the original spirit behind the fantastic automata. The modern machine has value only for its purpose, every effort made to make it as unobtrusive as possible, hidden behind cupboard doors and other cheap facades. The spirit and excitement of complicated machines whose only purpose was to amuse the eyes has largely been lost by the demand for practicality.

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