18th Century Automata

Article first appeared in the Irish Times, June 2022  

18th Century Automata - Irish Times 

The eighteenth-century automaton: the power and the glory… and the horror


In my novel, The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley (Doubleday, 9 June), set in the mid eighteenth century, Zachary’s father makes remarkable automata, simulations of people and animals driven by clockwork and programmed by cams that worked much like prototype computer software. Ultimately one of his father’s automatons brings peril to Zachary’s family when it is seized in the Sultan’s palace in Constantinople, along with his father. 


Most of the real automata of two hundred and seventy years ago have been lost – Vaucanson’s famous duck (famous because it ate, digested and excreted its food), and Wolfgang Von Kempelen’s infamous chess-playing ‘Turk’ (infamous because it was proved to be a hoax, though only after it had played and defeated the Emperor Napoleon, Benjamin Franklin and countless others over its eighty year life). But some automata from that era can still be seen operating as they did then, notably Jaquet-Droz’s ‘The Writer’ and ‘The Musician’ which can be found in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and James Cox’s Silver Swan which is in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, England. 


I’d assumed that these automata were mere luxuries for the very rich but in researching my novel I discovered that they were about much more than adornment or entertainment. They were manifestations of technical prowess, projections of national power, celebrations of Enlightenment science and, most surprisingly, regarded by some as experiments in the search for eternal life. 


Vaucanson was a French inventor, his metal lathe contributing to early industrialisation, and his automata gaining a reputation as convincing simulacra of living beings; Jaquet-Droz was born in Neuchâtel and lived in Paris and Geneva, his creations perhaps the true forerunners of computers; Londoner James Cox made wildly elaborate timepieces and automata, specialising in bejewelled animals that could move gracefully and sing and snarl. Cox’s work was often made for export to China; he borrowed heavily, bankrupting himself more than once. Each of these and the other leading makers of automata were given patronage by the royal courts, not only so their devices could grace the palaces of kings and emperors (though they did) but also as projections of national power – a sort of ‘clockwork space race.’ It’s no coincidence that the most famous makers were based largely in London and Paris, at the time the capitals of the world’s great superpowers and which were engaged from 1756 in what might justly be characterised as the first world war – The Seven Years’ War – which raged in Europe, North America, India, and the Far East. A nation that could nurture such dazzling mechanical expertise could also, so the reasoning went, manufacture naval vessels, cannon and rifles that would render all that went before obsolete. Remember John F Kennedy’s 1962 speech about the space programme: We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard. Eighteenth-century automata may not have been spacecraft, but like the Apollo programme (a response to Russian Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 space flight), they were fiendishly hard to make and were essentially the product of superpower rivalry.   


The mid eighteenth-century was the zenith of Enlightenment thinking. Science was racing ahead in every direction, largely freed from the constraints placed upon it in previous centuries by the cold hand of church authority, political turmoil and widely held superstition. Discovery and innovation flourished in the fields of astronomy, anatomy, philosophy, botany, zoology, agriculture, commerce, navigation, and literature. The pace of change must have seemed breathtakingly fast to those in the midst of it, though many were, of course, still eking out the barest of livings much as they had for generations - and in those lands newly colonised by European powers the brutality of slavery was often accompanied by grotesque genocidal acts on indigenous populations. 


Against a background in which almost anything seemed possible, automata were another scientific marvel, and one that held the possibility not simply of being marvellous but in time useful. It was in this era that the word android came into use. Vaucanson experimented with the concept of a circulatory system for an automaton, a creature on which medical and scientific experiments might be conducted to advance medicine. Rubber was discovered mid-century, and makers of automata quickly saw its possibilities in making ever more life-like, human-like automata. 


You can see where this is all leading. Belief in magic should sit uneasily with belief in science. Yet this was an era in which alchemy, the ancient ‘science’ of the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life lingered on, and while the new science often disparaged the old, it could not quite throw off the traces of magical expectation that so often accompanies scientific breakthrough. Today we still await the ‘magic’ of nuclear fusion to give us limitless, safe and almost free energy, after all. And so the makers of automata found themselves urged to make ever more human androids, leading to Von Kempelen’s chess playing automaton, ‘The Turk,’ seemingly able to think through the complexities of a chess game and play the world’s grand masters. That this automaton turned out to be a fraud is perhaps less surprising than that for almost eighty years many of the world’s cleverest people believed in its remarkable abilities. Why did they do so? The answer, I think, is because they wanted to believe that an automaton was capable of rivalling, even exceeding human intelligence. 


What of today’s artificial intelligence, or AI? Is Raymond Kurzweil, inventor of optical and speech recognition systems, today’s Vaucanson? And what of the ‘the singularity,’ a phrase coined by mathematician John von Neumann and popularised by Kurzweil in which runaway advances in AI imminently dwarf human intelligence, leading to unpredictable technological change? Some thought – and hoped – that clockwork automata might do this two hundred and seventy years ago. Is that prospect marvellous or the stuff of nightmares? 


Let us conclude on the banks of Lake Geneva. It is 1816, and the Age of Enlightenment has been eclipsed by romanticism and a revival of interest in the mystical. Scientific and technological advance continues apace, but reason is less celebrated and the unknown and unknowable willingly embraced. A group of young men and women are spending a wet summer on holiday in Switzerland, amongst them Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and his young wife-to-be (he was already married to another woman), Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, better known to us today as Mary Shelley.  


Frankenstein’s creature was a fleshly automaton, made in pursuit of everlasting life, a being equally of science and of horror. We cannot be certain whether Mary saw Jaquet-Droz’s automata on her way to Lake Geneva, but she was certainly familiar with them. And the title of her novel was no accident: Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus. Prometheus was the Titan who stole fire from the gods to give to humans and was condemned to eternal torment for his efforts. Automata were early steps on that promethean path, a path we still walk as AI becomes more and more a part of our daily lives, bringing power and glory to the likes of Google and Amazon and, who knows, perhaps horror to us all.