Friday, May 25, 2012

Let's Go to The Automat(a)

H. Maillardet, 1810. The Franklin Institute.

A piece in the Paris Review serendipitously echoed a conversation with a neighbor about the Morris Museum, in Morristown, NJ. First, a confession. Until my neighbor told me about it, I had *no idea* that this museum existed, or that it holds one of the largest collections of mechanical automata in the US. It's not too far from the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, which has a great permanent exhibit of several automata, including an early nineteenth century writing automaton by Maillardet.

I was particularly tickled by the mention of automata that simulate breathing. Adelheid (Heidi) Voskuhl has written about Enlightenment automata that appear to breathe, especially musical automata, in her upcoming book, Mechanics of Sentiment, due out later this year. Medieval automata could also appear to breathe, but in a different way. For example, in Thomas of Britain's version of Tristan and Isolde (mentioned in the previous post), the moving golden statue of Isolde has sweet-smelling herbs in its chest. The odor of the herbs travels through small golden tubes to the nose, so that when Tristan kisses it, the statue exhales scented air. This fake physiology mimics contemporary ideas about physiology, which held that the heart manufactured the spiritus (breath) necessary for life. A similar theory, in Hermetic texts, insisted on the importance of pneuma (breath) as the manifestation of the divine spirit within the individual. Well, as I live and breathe...

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