Automatons - mechanical toys for adults

E&T visits Villa Sauber in Monte Carlo to discover an inspiring collection of androids - human-shaped mechanical dolls.

My favourite childhood toy was a time-battered mechanical gymnast, which - at the pull of a side-handle - would execute a couple of squeaky reluctant somersaults on parallel bars. The late 19th-century plaything was given to me by my granddad who, in turn, got it as a gift from his father. As with many of my toys, my ownership of the gymnast turned out to be final in the mechanical doll's long life: one day I simply took it apart driven by the ever-present obsessions. What was inside? How did it work?

I didn't know then that I had been the lucky owner - and was now the cruel destroyer - of an original French automaton.

An unexpected reminder of the hapless gymnast of my childhood occurred nearly half a century after the toy's demise, during my recent assignment in Monaco. In the course of a long lunch break at the CleanTech conference I was attending, I popped inside the magnificent Belle Époque Villa Sauber in the centre of Monte Carlo and discovered that it was home to a private de Galea collection, which includes the most beautiful automatons ever made.

The collection was started by Madeleine de Galea, wife and later widow of a 19th century French diplomat. A passionate collector (if not to say hoarder), she took special interest in the times of Napoleon III and eventually accumulated a number of objects and furnishings from that era. She also collected tin soldiers, china dolls and automatons, which were quite stylish at the time. After Madame de Galea's death, her grandson donated the bulk of her collection to French museums, including Le Louvre, whereas dolls and automatons were given to Prince Rainier of Monaco and found a permanent home at Villa Sauber in 1972.

What is an automaton?

According to the Larousse dictionary, an automaton is "a machine which by means of mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic, electric or electronic devices is able to imitate the living body". Automatons with a human face were also known as 'androids' - the word that later came to denote human-shaped robots.

Building automatons was always challenging and required advanced engineering skills.

Although records are scarce, mechanical toys go back thousands of years. They were widespread in China by the time of the Sui Dynasty (6th century AD), when the 'Shai Shih t'u Ching Book of Hydraulic Excellencies', was written. Under the T'ang Dynasty, the Chinese built birds with moving parts, mechanical otters that swallowed fish, and monks begging girls to sing. They also built a mechanical orchestra (about 300BC).

'Nightingale', an old Chinese folk tale retold by Hans Christian Andersen, is a moving story of an ailing Chinese Emperor who prefers a bejewelled mechanical toy bird to a real-life one. It testifies to the popularity of automatons in ancient China.

The ancient Greeks created some remarkably advanced automatons (from Greek automatos - 'spontaneous') and mechanical special effects, many of which were used in their temples. Archytas of Taretum (400 BC) a friend of Plato, built a wooden pigeon moved by steam. Heron describes the workings of several bird automatons in his 'Spiritalia' (150 BC)

European clockmakers created a number of mechanical gadgets during the Middle Ages. One of the oldest and best known examples is the 700-year-old Astronomical Clock in Prague. When the clock tower chimes the hour, a skeleton holding an hourglass rings a bell, and a Turk draws his sword. A door in the clock tower opens to reveal a series of animated figures that move across the top.

Later, clockmakers in Germany constructed many similar devices, although none were as impressive as the Prague original. Precision clockwork was also used to construct machines and mechanical toys.

'Mechanical Turk'

In the 16th century, magicians' boxes were a popular toy for wealthy adults. A disc with a question written on it was inserted into the device, and the figure of a magician would then point a wand at the answer.

The most famous automaton of all - the automatic 18th century Turkish chess player - 'Mechanical Turk' - was actually a clever fraud. In 1769, the Baron Wolfgang Von Kempelen (who served as counsellor on mechanics to the Empress Maria Theresa) was watching a performance at a party which made use of magnetic toys. The Baron bragged that he could build a much more thought-provoking version. The Empress told him he should go ahead and build one. The Baron worked on his invention for the next six months before presenting it in court as an automaton chess player dressed in traditional Turkish costume, whereas in fact a dwarf accomplice of the Baron was hiding inside it.

In the early Victorian era, androids developed by the Swiss Jacquet-Droz family and later by the French interpreted most occupations with mechanical ingenuity to make delightful adult playthings. In Victorian seaside arcades, some mechanical installations contained enormous battling armies, while others included complete circus performances - all turns being performed skilfully, if rather jerkily, to appropriate background music.

A typical 19th century Power Pageant automaton would perform the following multiple functions: as the musical part of the device played three different tunes, a fully rigged three-mast ship would sail across its paper sea, while a tall funneled railway train crossed the bridge in the background, and, as if that were not enough, the water wheel also revolved.

Satirical automatons

Most of the Villa Sauber mechanical exhibits were made in the end of the 19th - early 20th centuries, when automatons, while still remaining luxury toys for adults, were also displayed in homes as status symbols and works of art to amuse friends and family alike.

The manufacturers drew their satirical inspiration from the everyday lives of their rich clients. They created dandies, smoking gentlemen, musicians, children and dancing couples - the whole world of sophisticated, stylish, and yet grotesque characters, sporting garments decorated with real jewels, and parodying the body language of upper middle classes of the time of Belle Époque - the period of comfortable well-established life before the First World War.

At that time, Paris gave rise to a flurry of decadent entertainments. In numerous cafés, an often audacious repertoire was sung to delighted and tipsy audiences. The famous Folies-Bergères was staging exotic, daring and eccentric shows. Music, dance and joy were part and parcel of social life. Countless circus performances featured acrobats, jugglers and tamers of wild animals. 

The best automaton makers of the time tried to breathe real life into their mechanical creations.

Villa Sauber's de Galea collection contains works by the greatest late-19th-century artists and engineers: Antoine Vichy, Jean Roullet and Ernest Descamps, Jean-Marie Phalibois, Leopold Lambert, Blaise Bontems and some others. Similar to Delacroix, Baudelaire, Chateaubriand and Lamartine, the automaton-makers often drew their inspiration from themes oriental of which such androids as the snake charmer and the Japanese guitar-player (both displayed in the gallery) are brilliant examples. Nor were they immune from the ever-growing artistic influence of the French South American colonies. Antoine Vichy, for example, liked recreating life at Louisiana sugar cane plantations and to dress his characters (like the black smoker and the banjo player) in Louisiana costumes.

Far superior in their artistic, thought-provoking and imagination-developing qualities than most modern computer games, automatons remain a coveted collectors' item which very few of the connoisseurs are able to resist, for they are capable of evoking joy and wonder in the most hardened of human souls. Like the living puppets and the magic rides of Disneyland, they make one feel a child again...

It is a shame they no longer make automatons in the south of France. The real-life characters in the casinos and restaurants of modern Monte Carlo could surely rival the decadent patrons of the wild salons of 19th century Paris in inspiring the gifted and observant artists and engineers.

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