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...

Monday, May 14, 2012

Relations with Medieval Robots

Last week, Slate published an article about the technological developments that make it more likely that humans will interact with robots with more intimacy (emotional and sexual). Some of this ground has already been covered in "Lars and the Real Girl," even though Bianca, the "girl," was a sex doll, not a robot. But, as Daniel Wilson points out, David Levy wrote presciently about this in Love and Sex with Robots (2007). Certainly, it seems like this is a zeitgeist-y topic: the summer "offbeat buddy comedy" "Robot and Frank" addresses the relationship between an aging man and his robot caretaker. 

I've been thinking about this quite a bit recently, as I'm currently working on a book chapter that deals with this very issue. While the Pygmalion myth was pretty well known in medieval Europe, I find myself more fascinated by rarer stories of men who fall in love with artificial humans--often copies of recognizable individuals. In one version of the Tristan story, Tristan commands a giant in his debt to make golden statues of Isolde, her serving maid, her dog, and the dwarf who betrayed her to King Mark. Tristan can no longer see Isolde, but is still under the influence of the love-potion. So he uses these golden, moving statues to re-enact his affair with Isolde, and speaks to the statue as if it is his real lover. 

The increased interest in intimate relationships between robots and people makes me wonder if the next step (presaged by the 12th century Tristan story) is robotic copies of actual people, who can replace their human analogues. Medieval is the new modern, people!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Automata Restoration: Hibernian Edition

H/t to two friends of Medieval Robots, PM and JR, for the heads-up about this recent BBC story about Michael and Maria Start. Michael Start was the resident expert for the automata-related aspects of the film Hugo, and is a trained horologist, while his wife, Maria Start, is a sculptor. The Starts operate The House of Automata, which specializes in restoring automata (mainly late 18th-20th century, from what I can glean from the website). The House also houses a small museum of automata, which you can visit the next time you're in Kinloss, Scotland.