Amazing automata from ye olden times have been cropping up everywhere recently! The New York Times recently ran an article about the creations of R. J. Wensley, a robotics engineer and inventor from the first half of the 20th century.* And then the folks at Colossal got excited about Simon Schaeffer's recent (and fabulous) BBC documentary, and a few of the 18th century automata that he profiles. One of these, L'écrivain, is from the workshop of Pierre & Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz. Adelheid Voskuhl has a recent piece in Slate about the importance of the Jaquet-Droz and other Enlightenment
automata.Voskuhl's argument, based on her recent (and fabulous) book Androids in the Enlightenment, is that these luxury objects actually modeled new forms of civic engagement and social behavior by performing affective practices that were important to bourgeois and aristocratic Enlightenment culture. These automata, especially the piano-playing women that Voskuhl focuses on in her book, are conceptually similar to the 16th century praying monk, commissioned by King Charles V of Spain, that demonstrated proper devotional practice, and to the imaginary figures from the Alabaster Chamber in the 12th-century Roman de Troie, which enacted and enforced courtly behavior.
* While I'm always happy to see Leonardo get name-checked, esp. in relation to early automata, it goes without saying that the *entire point of this blog* is to make it clear that these objects were imagined and built well before the fifteenth century.