Little robots of centuries past

The mechanism of the eyes, mouth, and neck. National Museum of American History & Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute (Radiograph taken by staff at the Museum Conservation Institute, formerly the Conservation Analytical Laboratory)

Were these the first robots?

“Miracles and Machines: A Sixteenth-Century Automaton and Its Legend,” by Elizabeth King and W. David Todd (Getty Publications, 245 pp., $45)

by Bondo Wyszpolski

“Automaton of a Friar” (mid-sixteenth century). Spain or South Germany. Wood, fabric, iron clockwork. Height: 40.64 cm (16 in.). Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

The automaton of the subtitle is a walking and gesticulating figure of a friar, referred to, however, as “the monk,” and it dates back to mid-sixteenth-century Spain or South Germany. It was purchased by the Smithsonian Institution in 1977. Although it stands just 16 inches tall and weighs a little under five pounds, it’s something of a forefather of what we’d now call an android. R2-D2 and C-390 could be considered its descendants.

As the authors write midway through the book, “A small wooden sculpture with a hidden clockwork was once crafted to move as if with a mind of its own. The philosophy of mind and body in the next centuries took notice. Today we are obsessed — haunted — by robots.”

The monk is wearing a Franciscan tunic and sandals, and he carries a cross. Partially wound, and released, he goes through several motions: “Twenty seconds into the act,” write King and Todd, “he has taken eight steps, beaten his chest three times, kissed the cross, and traveled a distance of nineteen inches.” Fully wound, he’ll walk almost 14 feet and make six turns, the performance itself lasting three to three-and-a-half minutes.

The monk “works” the table. Photograph by Margery Albertini, 1993

While the monk doesn’t bring the viewer hot coffee, one of the photographs in the book shows a replica of an eighteenth-century Edo-period Japanese tea-serving automaton.

As the authors note, “The collaboration between clockmaker and sculptor yielded a new kind of object, the first of its kind.” While King is a sculptor, Todd is a clockmaker who spent the years 1978 to 2006 as the Smithsonian’s Museum Specialist in Timekeeping. That said, he knows all about the inner workings of the monk, and while the mechanics are indeed intriguing, he explains them in such depth that the lay reader may be excused for not grasping all of the details of how various parts interact with one another.

So while the intricacies of the device can be deciphered and explained, the question of who made the monk and where is still a mystery, although informed guesses abound.

The monk on display in 1993 in what was then the Hall of Timekeeping. Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Juanelo Turriano (c.1500-1585) was a clockmaker, and among his creations is an automaton, about 11 inches tall, referred to as a “lady that plays and dances.” He also created a variety of automatons for the ailing Charles V. In addition to Turriano, Jakob Bulmann (he died c.1535) is cited in a 1547 manuscript as one of Nuremberg’s “most refined artists and craftsmen” of the century. “They were thinkers and makers both.”

But there’s a backstory to all this which I think you’ll find interesting. Don Carlos, child of Philip II and heir to the throne, was rushing down the stairs, stumbled, and flew headlong against a closed door. It was 1562 and the prince was 17 years old. The injury was severe, to say the least. Now, keep in mind that this is Spain, where religion was more popular than water, and so all kinds of remedies were tried, including bringing the mortal remains of Diego de Alcalá into the sickroom and placing them on the prince’s bed. Soon after, and as amazing as this sounds, the young man recovered his eyesight and shed his delirium. And so? Well, the figurine of the monk is presumed to be based on Diego de Alcalá (c.1400-1463). Furthermore, “A mission in his name was established in America in 1769. It later became the city of San Diego.”

The head and its linkages. Courtesy of David Todd, Smithsonian Associate Curator Emeritus, from his Smithsonian project files

The book also features numerous photographs of the monk taken by Rosamund Purcell in 2002. I met her a bit after that when she created an installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. The article that I wrote must have impressed her because afterwards she and her husband Dennis drove down to the South Bay and took me to lunch. My advice is to check out the many projects and books she has created over the years.

Now, to fully appreciate the monk it helps to have some familiarity with other automatons from around the same era, between 1550 and 1650, and to that end King and Todd discuss seven additional automatons. Naturally, reading about them is one thing; seeing them in action is something else: “We know very little about an automaton, any automaton, if we do not know how it looks when it moves.”

The years have taken their toll, of course, and all of the automatons had either missing or broken parts. At least three of them today are no longer functional. However, some links are supplied throughout the book so that one can go online and see how a couple of them moved.

Inside the head: eyes and mouth. Courtesy of David Todd, Smithsonian Associate Curator Emeritus, from his Smithsonian project files

“Miracles and Machines” is so thorough that it includes discussions about the sculptures of saints and other holy figures by Pedro de Mena and others, in particular the pageants and parades and the large processions during Holy Week, with its lifelike figures. There’s also a brief chapter about the Mourners of Dijon, some 80 alabaster figures carved for two tomb monuments in fifteenth-century Burgundy. A few years ago 37 of those figures, a little taller than the monk, toured the United States and maybe you saw them at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The book includes an impressive bibliography for those who become mesmerized by the subject. The authors close on this note: “Our first and last definition of the storied monk: a motionless thing that comes to life.”

They don’t mention this, but the descendants of these original automatons include sex dolls, the former inhabitants of Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree, and mechanical bulls. What would the monk have thought of that! ER


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