Mechanical Musical Instruments and Objects

Amusing Automata

 Automaton is a winded mechanism encased in a doll representing a person, an animal or a bird that moves to the music and does actions that are typical for its line of conduct. It is considered that first automatons appeared in the ancient times. Legends say about walking statues of Daedalus in Athens and a flying wooden pigeon owned by Archytas from Tarentum. Automatons emerged quite long ago in Russia, as well.



In the Kolomensky Palace, Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich had a pair of mechanical lions, standing at both sides of the throne; they were able of copying some movements of real animals. Some history records evidence claim that it was Ivan the Terrible in Russia who could have owned the first automaton, as foreign ambassadors wrote in their letters: “a mechanical automated servant (an iron man)” served him when he was having his meal.

However, the first automaton created by the famous master, Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782), “The Flute Player” was made and demonstrated in Paris in 1738. The automaton was a person size doll, which could play 12 tunes. At the same time, it could imitate the human movements – its fingers could move along the flute blowholes, its mouth could breathe out the air, its lips and roof of the mouth could move like the human’s one. The flute man by Vaucanson is considered the first successful attempt of creating a human being imitation.

Swiss watchmakers, father and son Droz (Jaquet Droz) from La Chaux-de-Fonds inscribed another important page in the history of creating automata. In 1775, the father Droz created “The Writer”. The automaton was recognized as unique for that time. It was comprised of 600 details and could write the text of 40 letters or symbols long on the paper. Jaquet Droz’s sons created two more famous automata “The Musician” and “The Draughtsman”.

Another type of automata was quite popular in Europe in the 18th - 19th centuries - mechanical singing birds in cages with winded mechanisms. Originally, those birds were used for training pet canaries to sing. Later on mechanical birds became a popular home accessory. Everyone remembers “The Nightingale”, a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Greek engineer, Heron from Alexandria, invented a similar bird one century B.C. Herons’ automata design was quite simple. The bird seated on the cap of a sealed vessel. Water was poured into this vessel. It forced air into the tube that was built-in the bird’s neck. When the vessel was filled up to the top, the bird stopped singing and the water started to flow automatically from the vessel through the siphon, and then it all repeated again.

The Museum collection of mechanical dolls and automata is unique. The experts esteem it as one of the best collections in the world. It includes all forms and types of mechanical toys of the 18th – 20th centuries.


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