Curious Trends


Automata and mechanical toys

The renewed and growing fascination with cabinets of curiosity has spawned new interest in the curious mechanical devices known as automata. Clockwork automata, manufactured in the 16th century, were popular ‘devices of wonder’ in the collections or Wunderkammern of the princely courts of Europe.

An automaton is essentially a self-operating machine, often associated with the (autonomous) robot. These are often made to depict human or animal actions, reminiscent of the animated figures in public striking clocks – like the famous Fortnum and Mason clock in London’s Piccadilly.

According to Wikipedia, the world’s first biomechanical automaton is considered to be the Flute Player, made by a French engineer called Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737.

From the latter part of the 19th century, there was another revival in automata, as curiosities at fairgrounds, typified by the popular ‘laughing sailor’ found in many amusement arcades.

The Musee Mecanique is one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in original working condition. If you’re not able to get to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, there’s also a great website, with plenty of images and a virtual tour of the museum.

Quite a number of websites offer DIY instructions on how to make your own automaton. There are also some DIY design workshops, like the Magic Assemblage classes at the Victoria and Albert Museum , and Rose Bruford College’s Mechanical Workshop at Theatre Craft.
Modern automata do not come cheap and prices average in the region of £1000-£3000 for something totally original. One of the best websites to visit if you’re considering investing in one of these unique curiosities is Cabaret – Mechanical Theatre.

I picked out some examples from a variety of sources:

Spaghetti eater by Paul Spooner

Orange Tree by Pierre Mayer

Keith Newstead started making automata from the flotsam which arrives regularly at his local beach in Cornwall. The contents of containers lost at sea sometimes contain large amounts of the same, often colourful cargo, (lighters or legos) which is upcycled to create his curious inventions. This piece is called ‘Sad Frog’ and is a one-off design this is now sold.

Fort Libellu by Pascale Michalski has rather a Steampunk feel to it and also reflects the current trend for bug and insect related artworks

Manet’s Olympia by Paul Spooner (my favourite, as it reminds me of my father…)

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