Public interest in automata has greatly increased since the release of Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo. But exactly just what is an automaton? Automatons are intricate wind-up or self-operating mechanical devices that are meant to imitate human or animal characteristics - and they're often eerily accurate. They are often looked at as the first computers and/or robots because they respond to predetermined instructions as modern machines do, although they appear to be operating on their own (adding to the creepy factor).
The first clockwork automaton, the Writing Boy, was created in 1770 by a Swiss watchmaker named Pierre Jaquet-Droz in the 1770s. Originally, clock makers were the crafters of automata - all that metal work with tiny gears was something only they could master. As automatons became larger, more elaborate, and made with various materials, other tradesmen such as woodworkers and toy makers got involved in crafting them as well. Automata are fascinating mechanical wonders; how many of these curiosities continue to operate remains a mystery in some cases. This list contains various interesting and unintentionally unsettling automatons.
This clockwork monk is believed to be from the 16th century and wanders around, moving his arms in prayer. His eyes can move from side to side. He raises a rosary and even strikes his breast, a gesture that used to be common in Catholic mass. While his true origins are unknown, the popular theory is that it was crafted by 16th-century Spanish clock maker Juanelo Turriano.
According to lore, King Philip II commissioned Turriano to create the monk while his son was recovering from a horrible illness. The King prayed for his son and promised a miracle for a miracle. The automaton in endless prayer serves as his earthly miracle. The monk has been owned by the Smithsonian since the 1970s.
The Magic Cupboard
This bizarre automaton called Le Buffet Magique which means "The Magic Cupboard," is believed to be the work of Auguste Triboulet for the Paris company Vichy in 1910. It features a young boy opening up a cabinet to get his hands on some kind of jam or jarred treat. But the goodies are not alone; there’s a fly crawling inside and a mouse climbing on an apple beneath it. As he reaches for the jar, it spins around to reveal a creepy granny face, busting him for rummaging in her cupboard. He doesn’t get his jam. It, along with over 150 other terrifying automatons and mechanical musical instruments, can be found at the Morris Museum in Morristown, NJ.
The Alchemyst's Clocktower
This elaborate beast of an automaton was created by Thomas Kuntz and consists of hundreds of pieces of brass and steel, all handmade. It took four years to finish and was completed in 2008. There are people lurking in the tower windows, a devil watching from above and, once the doors part, the Alchemist in his lab puts on the real show. The Alchemist tells the tale of his celestial machine while thunder rolls, potions bubble, and flames jump up. At the end, the doors shut and your attention is redirected to the ornate devil. It chuckles as water pours from its mouth.
St. Dennistoun Mortuary Scene
This coin-operated automaton was crafted in 1900 by John Dennison and depicts a funeral parlor scene. The Greek Revival mortuary building is encapsulated in mahogany with opening doors that allow a peek inside the mortuary. Viewers witness mourners sobbing out front and the morticians working with dead bodies on embalming tables inside. It was sold at auction in 2012.