What are automata? Automata, or 'living machines,' are manmade devices that imitate life functions. They can be as simple as wind-up dolls or as complex as a Cray Supercomputer. Computers (thinking machines) are automata, of course ... as are pacemakers and dialysis machines. In fact, over the last two generations automata have gone from being the stuff of fairy tales (Tick Tock of Oz and the Golem of Prague to name a few) to being such an integral part of our daily lives that they are rapidly on their way to becoming transparent tech.
Why am I interested in them? The short answer is that I wrote a novel about a French emergent AI named Hyacinthe Cohen who collects 18th century automata. His hobby got me interested in them, and everything went downhill from there. If you want to meet Cohen and are interested in science fiction about artificial life, quantum computing and quantum cosmology, then read my novel SPIN STATE (Bantam Spectra, 2003). If you're just here for the automata, read this page and check out the attached links.
A Bit of History. The construction of 'living machines' (and the associated debate about whether 'living machines' were actually living at all) is a surprisingly old pastime. The most sustained and productive periods of automata development occured in ancient China and 18th century France and Swizterland. The most famous 18th century automaton was Vaucanson's mechanical duck, a metal duck covered with cloth and feathers that allegedly swam, flapped its wings and digested food ... which was, depending on how you look at it, a miraculous piece of technology or a very complicated and expensive dirty joke.
Vaucanson's duck sparked a mania and inspired many other mechanical ducks, as well as a number of other types of automata including the famous Jaquet-Droz automatic writer and von Kempelen's Chess Player. The Chess Player was eventually revealed as a fraud; it housed a secret chamber from which the 'automaton' was operated over the course of a decade by a veritable cabal of Europe's greatest human chess players ... or at least by the short ones!
Nonetheless, these devices were considered serious (albeit popular) science in their day. With shifting intellectual styles, however, they became curiosities, and many of the most famous ones were taken apart, lost to rust and decay, or just lost period. Nonetheless, the great era of French automata did introduce a significant idea to European scientists: the conviction that animals, including humans, were machines whose functions could (given sufficient knowledge and technical skill) be accurately reproduced by mechanical means. These ideas were popularized by books such as L’Homme Machine (or ‘Machine Man’) and in scientific expeditions. They would be revisited by Alan Turing, Seymour Cray, the Big Blue designers ... in short, by all the scientists who developed the various technologies that I used to write this webpage and you are now using to view it...
...and an automated garden without a website. I am in the process of putting together a larger database of links, books and other sources of information about automata. Meanwhile, I encourage everyone to visit the Museum of Automata in Grenoble and the Chateau Vendeuvre in Normandy, where there is a large collection of antique automata as well as an extremely creepy partially automated 18th century garden. I would include links to these places, but they are not yet sufficiently automated to have acquired websites...
NOTE TO NEW READERS: This page dates from 2005, and is woefully out of date. I'm trying to update it, and I'd love suggestions. If you have any thoughts or comments, please drop me a line at my blog, SFness.