Posts Tagged ‘Clerkenwell’

The Strange World of Clockwork Robots

June 6, 2013

I find most of the material on TV now remarkable only for how uninteresting I find it. But occasionally on eof the TV companies puts on a little gem. One of these was Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on BBC 4 last Monday night at 9 pm. Presented by Professor Simon Schaffer, it was a history of European automato in the 17th and 18th centuries. Schaffer’s an historian of science, who has appeared on a number of other shows on the history of science. In this programme he discussed the way the development of clockwork in the Middle Ages had produced automata, little robots that were used in the most magnificent clocks. He showed the vast medieval clock in Berne in Switzerland with its numerous figurines. He then went to the palace of one the Austrian bishops, who had a Protestant clockmaker construct an entire clockwork town, complete with animals being slaughtered, artisans busy at their trades and all overseen by aristocrats, who themselves scarcely seemed to move. Schaffer noted this represented the ideal social hierarchy of which the Bishop was a part. The Bishop was supported in his wealthy by profits from the salt mines. The miners themselves were radical, and mostly Protestants. This had resulted in a crackdown by the Roman Catholic authorities. The Protestant mineworkers were banished. The clockmaker himself was forced to work under armed guard because of his sympathies.

Vaucanson’s Replicant Fluteplayer

The programme then moved on Jacques Vaucanson, whose works were surely more like clockwork replicants than simple authomata. Vaucanson was deeply impressed with the technology that lay behind these great robotic marvels. He believed that it would be possible to use it to create an artificial human being. So he spent his evenings studying human anatomy, dissecting cadavers in order to replicate them more accurately in his art. His greatest creation was a mechanical flute player, which actually player the flute. A set of bellows acted as lungs, to blow air into the instrument, while the figure’s hands moved to cover and uncover the holes. It was even covered with real skin. This mechanical marvel disappeared sometime in the 19th century in eastern Europe, and no-one knows where it is, or even if it still exists.

The Writing Boy of Jacquet Droz

Then there was Jacquet Droz, one of whose automata was a little boy that actually wrote. Schaffer explained that the key technological component of these automata was the cam, a wheel that moved the other pins and lever in the machines. The shape of the wheel governed the movement of the other levers, working the machines’ limbs. They thus acted as a kind of mechanical memory, storing the instructions for the automata’s movements. The great complicated automata, such as Vaucanson’s flute player and Droz’s writer, had a number of them stacked one on top the other within the machines in a column. This column rose and fell as each camn was selected in turn to govern its part of the machine’s complex movements. The writing boy was particularly impressive as it physically wrote out on paper, ‘I am Jacquet Droz’ in French. It also drew a dog, and indeed, by changing the letters arranged in a wheel at the base of the figure, you could programme it to write anything you chose. Schaffer concluded that it was the distant ancestor of the modern programmable computer.

Poor Watchmakers and the Automaton as Revolutionary Symbol of Aristocratic Class Oppression

These marvels were able to be produced through the intensive labour of poorly paid watchsmiths. These occupied particular areas of towns, such as Clerkenwell in London. There would be six or seven of them gathered around a table, working by candlelight to make a single component, such as an arm for the escapement mechanism. Schaffer noted that the technology began to acquire revolutionary implications. In the decades before the French Revolution, artisans and the working class began to claim equality with their lords and masters. These mechanical marvels were made for an exclusive audience of aristocrats. Jacquet Droz charged deliberately high prices so that only the upper crust could view them, and put up notices stating that servants would not be allowed in. The French Revolutionaries in their turn claimed that the king and the aristocracy were simply automata themselves, dressed in expensively lace. It was a dehumanising description that allowed them to send their monarch to the guillotine.

Automata, the Eccentric Monsieur Merlin, and the Export Trade with China

Over the Channel in England, automata were seen as a way of winning the export battle with China. Europeans craved expensive Chinese goods, such as porcelaine and tea. Frustratingly, the Chinese were completely uninterested with anything Europe had to offer, with the exception of automata. The British entrepreneur James Cox thus set to work making them for export to China. His greatest employee was a Belgian emigre called Merlin. Merlin was highly eccentric. When he appeared in public, it was dressed as a bar maid, serving drinks, while playing the violin rolling around on roller skates, which he had also invented. He wasn’t always able to stop. In one incident, recorded in the papers, he collided with a £40,000 mirror, which he smashed to ribbons. Merlin’s greatest creation was a mechanical swan. Glass rods mimicked the actions of water. Between them sawm little mechanical fish. When activated, the swan moved its head, bent down, and took and ate one of the fish.

Schaffer concluded the programme by comparing the storage of information on the automata’s cam systems, with the reproduction of speech on vinyl records, playing the programme out to a suitable piece of music.

Contemporary Automata, Musical Robots, and Automata as Inspiration for Dr. Who Monsters.

It was a fascinating programme. There have been a number of exhibitions of automata in recent years. You can find footage of them, including Jacquet Droz’s writing boy and Merlin’s swan on Youtube. The tradition of musical robots has also been taken up by Compressorhead. This is a genuinely all robot band, which I believe come from Germany. As robots, they naturally play Heavy Metal. You can find footage of them playing Motorhead’s Ace of Spades. Several of the automata clearly inspired some of the monsters in Dr. Who. Clockwork androids featured in a David Tennant episode, where the good doctor had to defend Madame Pompadour from being turned into spare parts for a stranded spaceship far in the future. The programme also featured the chess-playing Turk. This was an elaborate hoax. It was supposedly a mechanical figure of a Turk that played chess. It toured Europe, beating just about all the chess masters it played against. That was until its secret was revealed. The cabinet beneath the figure was actually large enough to hold a full-sized man, who moved the arms of the figure above him. He could even follow the game by looking upwards. There was a nod to this in a recent Dr. Who episode. Penned by the mighty Neil Gaiman, this had a hollowed-out cyberman that played chess, secretly worked by a dwarf. The dwarf was played by Warwick Davis, now showing that you can have a career after appearing as an Ewok.

Automata and the Industrial Revolution

Schaffer also noted that the automata may also have served as inspiration for the mechanised looms of the industrial revolution. In a meeting with his fellow factory masters, Joseph Arkwright had wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to produce mechanical arms to work the looms similar to the mechanical arms of the automata. Surveying the merchanical arms on the industrial looms, Schaffer wondered if it wasn’t too far-fetched to see the similarity between them and those of the automata.

M. Merlin and the Artist as Eccentric, Then and Now

The programme also showed how old the relationship between art and personal eccentricity had been. Since Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and the Surrealists artists have been linked to outrageous behaviour. So outrageous at times, that George Orwell felt compelled to attack the special treatment with which artists are indulged for attitudes and behaviour that would be condemned as completely unacceptable amongst Joe Public in his article, ‘Benefit of Clergy’. M. Merlin’s bizarre appearance and behaviour clearly qualifies him for inclusion with the other, contemporary masters of the bizarre and shocking, such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and the Chapman Brothers, and some of the other winners of the Turner Prize. One of these also dresses in female attire. This part of the programme shows that art has always contained more than element of showmanship, and that artists have been shocking, scandalising and entertaining the public with bizarre displays of personal behaviour since the 18th century, if not long before. It didn’t just emerge with the Surrealists and the Situationists in the ’20s and 60’s.

Schaffer did get something wrong, however. He seemed to suggest that clockwork first emerged in order to regulate town life. They didn’t. They emerged to regulate the times of prayer of the church, so that even villages had clocks. These also could possess automata. One of the devices portrayed in the notebook of the great thirteenth century architect and engineer, Villard de Honnecourt, is for a clockwork angel that revolved to face the sun. Nevertheless, Schaffer’s programme was a fascinating documentary on the prehistory of modern robotics. Unfortunately it was placed on BBC 4, which the Beeb seems to see as dumping ground for all the intellectual stuff it should produce as a publicly funded broadcaster, but which don’t actually bring the ratings its bosses crave. It should, however, be available on BBC iplayer. Some of the programmes first shown on BBC 4 are repeated on BBC 2. I hope that’s the case, as this fine programme deserves a wider audience.

See below for a piece from Youtube of Jacquet Droz’s automata, including the writing boy.

And here’s the awesome Compressorhead. Is it just me, or do they really look like the robots Art Robot Kevin O’Neill used to draw in the Robusters and ABC Warriors strips in 2000 AD.