Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Video about how modern robots relate to karakuri

This video explores how modern Japanese robots share a lineage with ancient mechanical dolls.

[ Thanks Thomas! ]

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

An ancient mechanical genius you may NOT know

We have all heard the great inventors of antiquity such as Archimedes and Hero. Here is another name worth knowing: Al-Jazari. Al-Jazari was an scholar, inventor, engineer, craftsman, artist, mathematician and astronomer from Mesopotamia, who lived from about 1136 to 1206. He wrote The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which describes some fifty sophisticated machines.

The video clip shown here from Ancient Discoveries covers Al-Jazari's elephant clock -- a fantastically elaborate device which employed automata. There are a working reproductions of the elephant clock in Dubai and Switzerland.

Here is the Wikipedia article for Al Jazari. Here is the article on the elephant clock.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Wallingford clock at St Albans Cathedral (England)

Wallingford clock at St Albans Cathedral in England
At St. Albans Cathedral they have made a replica of the 14th Century clock and astronomical indicator designed and built by Richard of Wallingford. It takes 18 years to complete full cycle! When it was created, Richard's clock was probably the most complex clock in the British isles -- and among the most sophisticated anywhere.

Here is a web site dedicated to the Wallingford clock at St. Albans Cathedral.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Lecture: A Brief History of Automata

Lecture: A Brief History of AutomataIf you will be in the NYC area on April 14th, this looks like a fascinating lecture and demonstration...

About this lecture:
"In this illustrated lecture, "Obscura Antique and Oddities", Mike Zohn will demonstrate his 19th Century taxidermy automata, as featured in last year’s Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest. He will explain its curious mechanisms, and, in an illustrated lecture, will introduce us to the history of these fascinating uncanny machines, tracing their trajectory from tools of religious coercion to prince’s plaything to Disney’s imagineering experiments."

Lecture: A Brief History of Automata
Lecturer: Mike Zohn, Obscura Antiques and Oddities
Date: Wednesday, April 14th
Time: 7:00 PM
Location: Coney Island Museum, 1208 Surf Ave. Brooklyn

Here is a link to more information from the lecture announcement.

[ Thanks Caleb! ]

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Leonardo's Machines: Da Vinci's Inventions Revealed

Leonardo's Machines: Da Vinci's Inventions Revealed
Here is a highly-rated book that explores Leonardo's inventions from flying, hydraulic, war, and theatrical machines to musical instruments. This uses Leonardo's orginal artwork and annotated computer diagrams to show how each of his inventions might would have worked.

It seems to be out-of-print, but can be found used at Amazon. Here's a link to Leonardo's Machines: Da Vinci's Inventions Revealed

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Video of Leonardo's full-sized knight automaton

In this installment of the series Ancient Discoveries we see a recreation of a full-sized armored knight thought to be designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The internal gears and system of cables allowed the knight some limited forms of motion.

Learn more about Leaonardo's fascination with automata in Mark Rosheim's beautifully illustrated book Leonardo's Lost Robots.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

The coolest maker(s) of things in the world

Recently, I did a post about a book covering The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria. To get a better sense for some of the inventions this ancient genius came up with check out this segment of The History Channel's series titled Ancient Discoveries. The amazingly talented maker of technical and historical reproductions, Richard Windley, recreated a working version of Hero's archer and dragon automaton for the show.

Learn more about Richard Windely's historical recreations on his web site.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Book: The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria

The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria
Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria (c. 10-70 AD) was a prolific inventor and mathematician and is one of the first known creators of automata in the history of Western civilization. His original works were destroyed in the fire that consumed the ancient library in Alexandria, but some of his work survived by way of copies that were made in Arabic. Here is his work on Pneumatics, which included a working steam engine -- an invention that was perhaps several thousand years ahead of its time.

Here is the book The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Martha Stewart learns the history of automata

Here's a clip of Martha Stewart learning about various forms of automata through history from the famous video game creator and collector, Richard Garriott.

[ Thanks Karin! ]

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Leonardo's: Machines in Motion exhibit, Nebraska

There is an exhibit that looks simply amazing titled "Leonardo da Vinci: Machines in Motion" at the Strategic Air & Space Museum in Ashland, Nebraska. The models for the exhibit are gorgeous and nearly all of the displays are interactive. The Leonardo exhibit runs through May 9th, 2010.

Here's info on the Leonardo exhibit at the Strategic Air & Space Museum web site.

[ Thanks Rusty! ]

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Birthday of Eli Whitney Jr., Inventor

There is a tribute on the Make Magazine Blog to this American inventor.

From the Make Blog:
"On this day in 1765, Eli Whitney, Jr. was born in Westborough, Massachusetts. Whitney would go on, most famously, to invent the cotton gin, which revolutionized cotton production in the antebellum South. He eventually became the most famous early American proponent of interchangeable parts, and also invented one of the world's first milling machines."

Here's the Make Magazine post about Eli Whitney.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Video of mechanical south-facing chariot

I posted last year about some South Pointing Chariots -- an amazing mechanical invention from ancient China. No matter which way the cart turns or how often, the figure on top always points South (the cardinal direction of preference in that culture at that time). A magnetic compass isn't used to accomplish this task; the solution is entirely mechanical. Here is some video of a functional model made by the clever hands of Osamu Kanda.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Changing Faces - optical illusions with paper

Changing Faces - optical illusions with paper
This book on optical illusions using paper certainly looks interesting!

From the product Description
Changing Faces presents an idiosyncratic and humorous collection of paintings, drawings, cartoons, masks, toys, advertisements, and other works of ephemera that -- either by flipping or flopping or just plain staring -- somehow transform the human physiognomy. Here you will find optical illusions from the Renaissance, Enlightenment-era political cartoons, and Victorian toys that all start off as one thing and end up as another. Sometimes these mutations were made for fun (give magnetic hair to a bald man!) sometimes for profit (buy a Studebaker!), and sometimes to score a political point (watch a French king turn into a big fat pear!), but the results are always an intriguing pleasure to watch.

Here's the link for the book Changing Faces

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Friday, July 03, 2009

The Way Toys Work - book on the science of toys

The Way Toys Work book
The full title of this intriguing book is The Way Toys Work: The Science Behind the Magic 8 Ball, Etch A Sketch, Boomerang, and More. The book covers 50 well-known toys examining their history and the technology that makes them work. Throw in a mention of DIY experiments and some reverse engineering (see below) and this book is definitely on my reading list!

From the book description on Amazon:
Discover how an Etch A Sketch writes on its gray screen, why a boomerang returns after it is thrown, and how an RC car responds to a remote control device. Leaving no detail unrevealed, the guide includes original patent-application blueprints and photos of the “guts” of several devices. Inventors and museum curators also offer their observations of favorite gizmos while dispelling (or confirming) several toy legends. Complete with explanations of do-it-yourself experiments and tips on reverse engineering old toys to observe their interior mechanics, this entertaining and informative reference even provides pointers on how budding toy makers can build their own toys using only recycled materials and a little ingenuity.

Here is the link to The Way Toys Work: The Science Behind the Magic 8 Ball, Etch A Sketch, Boomerang, and More on

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Decoding the Heavens: Antikythera mechanism

Book - Decoding the Heavens: Antikythera mechanism
Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer--and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets is about the the Antikythera mechanism a mysterious and sophisticated mechanical device recovered in 1901 from an ancient Mediterranean shipwreck. It is now thought to have been built about 150 - 100 BC and represents the first known analog computer designed to calculate astronomical positions. It's an astonishing piece of ancient mechanical technology with a fascinating history.

From the Publishers Weekly
Marchant, editor of New Science, relates the century-long struggle of competing amateurs and scientists to understand the secrets of a 2000-year-old clock-like mechanism found in 1901 by Greek divers off the coast of Antikythera, a small island near Tunisia. With new research and interviews, Marchant goes behind the scenes of the National Museum in Athens, which zealously guarded the treasure while overlooking its importance; examines the significant contributions of a London Science Museum assistant curator who spent more than 30 years building models of the device; and the 2006 discoveries made by a group of modern researchers using state-of-the-art X-ray. Beneath its ancient, calcified surfaces they found "delicate cogwheels of all sizes" with perfectly formed triangular teeth, astronomical inscriptions "crammed onto every surviving surface," and a 223-tooth manually-operated turntable that guides the device. Variously described as a calendar computer, a planetarium and an eclipse predictor,Marchant gives clear explanations of the questions and topics involved, including Greek astronomy and clockwork mechanisms. For all they've learned, however, the Antikythera mechanism still retains secrets that may reveal unknown connections between modern and ancient technology; this globe-trotting, era-spanning mystery should absorb armchair scientists of all kinds.

Here is a link for more information on the book Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer--and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets

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Monday, June 08, 2009

6-foot long remote controlled reproduction Titanic

6 foot long remote controlled reproduction Titanic
At six feet long, this must be the mother of all remote control boats. Priced at $2,500, let's just hope it stays afloat better than the original.

From the product description
This is the 6' long, remote controlled reproduction of the RMS Titanic that includes authentic period details for the most discriminating nautical enthusiast. Painstakingly reproduced at 1:150 scale and involving over 400 man-hours in its assembly, the model is constructed from over 300 individually handcrafted pieces, including sculpted cedar strips that overlay the molded fiberglass hull, white maple planks (stained to replicate the color of the originals) for the decking, and mahogany for various superstructures.

Here is the link to Hammacher Schlemmer's Authentic 6 Foot Remote Controlled RMS Titanic.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Automta in antiquity article from SPIEGEL Online

Automta in antiquity article from Speigel Online
The German magazine SPIEGELhas published an article on automata in antiquity. least that's what I believe it is about. I cannot read German. Nevertheless, they have a number of wonderful drawings and photographs that accompany the article.

Once again the credit must go to Spiel und Kunst mit Mechanik for finding this great resource.

Shown above is a diagram of Hero of Alexandria's clever method for automatically opening temple doors. The fire in the pot, creates pressure in the large water tank. This causes water to spill into the bucket, the weight of which works against the counterweight to rotate the vertical axle attached to the temple door. Very clever. Done with the right amount of ceremony, this must have seemed very magical indeed to the ancient Greeks.

Here is a link to the photoset associated with the article. If you are able to read German, you might also like to read the original article on automata in antiquity.

[ Thanks once again to Falk Keuten! ]

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Monday, March 09, 2009

John Harrison, his clocks & longitude problem

Here is a 10 minute video segment about one of my heroes -- John Harrison. Harrison was the creator of the marine chronometer which gave sailors the first reliable way to determine their longitude while at sea. People didn't trust watches and clocks as we do now and many scientists of the day sought an astronomical solution to the problem. While possible, this was extremely impractical approach to use on board a tossing ship at sea in all kinds of weather.

Harrison made a total of four marine chronometers (H1, H2, H3 and H4), each more sophisticated that the one before. Prejudice and politics kept him from receiving a large prize for solving this problem. It wasn't until he was an old man and had gotten the attention of the British king that he was officially recognized for his contributions to science, horology, and navigation.

The full story can be found in Dava Sobel's book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Junod's Wonderland - video of a true master

A wonderful video with English translations profiling a modern master of classic automata. I'm so glad people like Francois Junod and his team still exist.

From the YouTube description:
Swiss artist Francois Junod has changed the automaton into a new art form. He calls his unique creations androids - mechanical robots designed to resemble humans in both appearance and behaviour. (swissinfo, Julie Hunt) visited his studio in St Croix, in the Jura mountains.

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Monday, January 05, 2009

Floating arm trebuchet - throws golf balls 200'

Floating arm trebuchet kit
This precision engineered trebuchet is a functional model standing 34" tall, 18" long and 12" wide when built. The guillotine-action and a plunging beam can hurl a golf ball over 200 feet. Nice!

From the product description:
Detailed instructions and high quality hardwood pieces that have been pre-cut and pre-drilled are all provided, so you can construct a finished model in a day.

This kit is professionally engineered, designed and manufactured in the USA. Made with 100% hardwoods, each part is precision carved by computer controlled machinery for a guaranteed fit and accuracy.

Here a link to see more about the Floating Arm Trebuchet.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Trebuchet and Catapult Gift Guide from MAKE

Trebuchet and Catapult Gift Guide
The holidays just got a bit I am so happy to share with you MAKE Magazine's complete Gift guide for the trebuchet and catapult maker. Build one, learn things, and by all means -- fling something!

(I am staunchly pro-catapult. There, I said it.)

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Working replica of the Antikythera mechanism

Working replica of the Antikythera mechanism
A British museum curator has built a working replica of the Antikythera mechanism -- a 2,000 year old machine found off the coast of Greece in 1902.

The Antikythera mechanism was used to track the movements of planetary bodies (including their various eccentricities) as well as for determining the dates for Olympic games.

Here's a full article on the working Antikythera reproduction: World's First Computer Rebuilt, Rebooted After 2,000 Years.

For even more information on this device, check out the book called Decoding the Heavens: Solving the Mystery of the World's First Computer.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Enchanting World of Automata, Paul Spooner

Here's a Paul Spooner piece that at first glance seems to depict the most innocent of automata themes. Indeed, simple ballerinas and musicians have long been the subjects of automata.

However, automata also have a long history of more adult themes -- and sometimes in conjunction with the more respectable subjects. For example, there are many pocket watch automata that show a simple, tasteful scene on the watch face. A door on the back of the pocket watch, though, may reveal a more graphic, shall we say..."amorous"...tableaux.

Spooner tips his hat to both of these themes in the piece shown here (NSFW). With tongue firmly in cheek, he has titled it: The Enchanting World of Automata. Paul Spooner's wit is second to none in the world of contemporary automata.

See the full scope of Paul Spooner's automata at Fourteen Balls Toy Company or look into buying a piece at the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre online shop.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Art in Motion, Profile of Artist Dug North

I had the great pleasure of being interviewed recently by writer Drea Kane. The University of Vermont Alumni Magazine, The Vermont Quarterly, has published an article she wrote, which is now available online.

It's a great article that tells a bit about me, the history of automata, and their more recent trajectory. I am honored to have been a part of it.

Here is a link to the article ART IN MOTION by Drea Kane.

[ My thanks to Drea Kane and The Vermont Quarterly. ]

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Working Torsion Spring Power Wood Ballista Kit

For those of you who enjoyed my two-part step-by-step guide on building the Pathfinder's Catapult Kit here's something else you will like. This a wood ballista kit.

The ballista (from the Latin and the Greek meaning "to throw") was a weapon developed from earlier Greek crossbows. It relied on two levers with torsion springs, consisting of several loops of twisted skeins of rope. Early versions ejected heavy darts or spherical stone projectiles of various sizes for siege warfare.

This kit is made from high quality knot-free Basswood. This ballistic firing machine is a working model easily assembled from pre-cut and pre-drilled pieces. It includes laser cut plywood wheels. The finished model is 11-1/2 inches long, 9 inches wide, and 5-1/2 inches tall.

Click here to buy the Ballista Wood Kit

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lathe Basics: History, Tools, and Safety Article

Photo of middle ages European pole-lathe in useHere is a great three page article covering the history of wood lathes, the tools currently used, and safety considerations.

From the article:
"One of the greatest features of turning is the chance to gain enough knowledge in short order to make finished projects in just a few hours--lathes give us the possibility of completing, including finish, many worthwhile projects inside a single evening. "

The article is courtesy of Woodcraft, who sells a full assortment of lathes, lathe tools, and lathe accessories.

Here is a link to the article on Turning Basics: History, Tools, and Safety.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Simon Schaffer on the History of Mechancial Clocks

Standing beside a reconstructed wooden clock, historian Simon Schaffer discusses the development of the first purely mechanical clocks in Europe in the late 1200s and early 1300s. The clocks in question used an escapement known as the Verge and Foliot, which can be seen above and below the bell to his left.

Read what Simon Schaffer has to say about automata in his article on "Enlightenment Automata" in the book The Sciences in Enlightened Europe.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Video of the Mysterious Chess-playing Automaton

I wrote recently about the Clockwork Game, the amazing graphic novel about The Turk.

Here is video footage of the mysterious chess-playing automaton created in 1770 by Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen.

For more details about The Turk you might check out:
Bibliography from Clockwork Game web site.

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Graphic Novel about The Turk Chess Automaton

Clockwork Game: The Illustrious Career of a Chess-playing AutomatonClockwork Game is a graphic dramatization of the historical events surrounding one of the famous automata known as The Turk. Constructed by Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen, The Turk amazed audiences for decades on several continents by playing (and besting) many human competitors at the game of chess. Or, did it...?

Written and illustrated by Jane Irwin, a new installment of Clockwork Game is available every Thursday. Not only is this true story captivating, it is well-illustrated in a crosshatched pen-and-ink style. The graphic novel will ultimately be available in many formats including print.

The Clockwork Game web site has a wealth of great information about The Turk.

Here's were you can start to read Clockwork Game from the beginning.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

A History of the Quest to Make Mechanical Life

Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical LifeOriginally published in the United Kingdom as Living Dolls, this book will be fascinating to those interested in the history of automata. As suggested in the subtitle –– "A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life" –– the author explores the motives of people who have made automata, androids, and robots through the ages.

This is a very well-researched account of humankind's ongoing efforts to simulate, emulate, and duplicate living things in mechanical form. A rich intellectual and cultural history, this book provides a context for understanding why automata have been created in the first place.

This book was included in my Kircher Society Essential Library of Automata list.

You can search inside many pages of Edison's Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Lifeon

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Vaudville Automaton Enigmarelle - a Hoax?

There is an running theme in the history of automata, to create -- or fake -- lifelike creations (for the latter, see The Turk, Chess-Playing Machine).

The recent post about an automaton from the 1900s by the name of Enigmarelle looks to be another hoax.

The source of their post is the VITAPHONE VARIETIES blog.

It seems a bit too good to be automaton adept at so many different things. I have nothing but respect for engineers, machinists, and craftsmen of the past, but this thing rivals ASIMO in its abilities.

Follow the links and decide for yourself. If you know more about the history of Enigmarelle, post a comment and let us know!

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Magic -themed Automaton to be Auctioned

Here is another installment in my ongoing behind-the-scenes sneak peek of the automata that will be auctioned by Skinner Auctioneers on March 24th in Boston.

This is a large coin-operated piece -- it takes the large old-style English penny. It features a clown with a fan. When the coin is inserted, music begins to play, and he covers his face with the fan.

Next, he raises the front panel on the box next to him to reveal...his head!

He pulls the fan away to reveal that his entire head is missing.The cycle then reverses until the machine stops running.

This piece was made by the younger Phalibois. (See Christian Bailly's Automata: The Golden Age, 1848-1914 for more information on Phalibois and other famous automaton makers of this era.)

Learn more about the auction in March at Skinner's website

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Skinner Automata Auction, March 24th, 2007

Here are some more details on the upcoming auction by Skinner Auction house.

The auction will take place on 24th of March, 2007 in Park Plaza, Boston.

Pictured here is another interesting automaton that will be in the sale (left). It's a wall-mounted picture-style automaton, from the 1800s.

The automaton depicts a colorful scene in a blacksmith's shop with men working at the forge, a tail-wagging dog, and a farrier shoeing a horse.

The entire thing is driven by a music box and clever assemblage of pulleys in the back (see second photo at left).

Additional details about the auction will be online at

Check back here in the coming weeks for more information.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Video of Life Size Elephant Automaton

I posted recently about a full-size walking elephant automaton. Here is some video of this amazing automaton in action.

Thanks to Tim Trager for the video

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

More on the Antikythera Mechanism

The journal Nature and the NYT have more this month on the Antikythera Mechanism which I posted about here back in September.

From the article in the NYT:
The mechanism, presumably used in preparing calendars for seasons of planting and harvesting and fixing religious festivals, had at least 30, possibly 37, hand-cut bronze gear-wheels, the researchers reported. An ingenious pin-and-slot device connecting two gear-wheels induced variations in the representation of lunar motions according to the Hipparchos model of the Moon’s elliptical orbit around Earth.

That's just amazing. This would be a huge accomplishment if someone made this today wih the aid of the internet, books from the last two thousand years, computers, and CNC milling machines. Bear in mind, they believe this was made around 150-100 B.C.!

Here's the New York Times article on The Antikythera Mechanism

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Scholarly Chapter on the History of Automata

The book is entitled Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill, and Self-Promotion in Paris during the Age of Revolution by Paul Metzner.

Though chapter 5 is titled, "Robert-Houdin and the Vogue of the Automaton-Builders", it actually covers a much broader swatch of history including Robert-Houdin's predecessors.

This is a 28 page chapter with a few illustrations and a long list of endnotes.

Read about Robert-Houdin and the automata-makers before him


Monday, September 25, 2006

The Antikythera Mechanism

Long suspected as being an astronomical showpiece, navigational instrument or rich man's toy, the Antikythera Mechanism is a bronze mechanism built before the birth of Christ.

New research has convinced scholars in Greece that it is, in fact, the world's oldest analog computer.

Here's the recent news article: Revealed: world's oldest computer

And here is the Wikipediea article on The Antikythera Mechanism

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mechanical Man from 1932

File it under 'robots' if you want, but it's an automaton to me! This is from Modern Mechanix November, 1932 via one of my favorite blogs -- Modern Mechanix.

Mechanical Radio Man Talks, Sings, Walks, and Rolls Eyes

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Pneumatic Automata by Hero of Alexandria

One of the earliest documented automata makers was Hero of Alexandria. There is now an online English translation of his work on pneumatics. Be sure to check out chapter 37 in which he describes his method to open temple doors by fire on an altar. Clever.

Here's the online edition of The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria

You might be able to find a used printed copy of The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria at

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