Friday, April 27, 2012

Fun Facts Friday

We’ve probably all seen some form of animatronics. It may have been bright and festive, like a happy snowman waving on a passing float. Or perhaps it was downright scary, like the shark that suddenly lunges out of the water on an amusement park ride. But whether they bring a smile or an eek, we still know their jerky movements and frozen gazes are fake.

Or are they?

What if a metal fly could buzz around the room and return to his makers hand? Or a mechanical duck was so life-like it actually fooled the real ones? Or how about clockwork boys that could write stories or draw pictures? Would they still seem so unreal?

These early forms of animatronics were called, automatons (aw-tom-uh-tuhns). Once set in motion, these complex ‘toys’ took on a life of their own. What’s their secret? Even though they were powered by a simple turn of a key, inside was an elaborate set up of springs, driving gears, ratchet wheels and axles. Something like a clock. In fact, it was usually clock-makers or inventors who constructed them.


One of the earliest forms of automaton was made in the late 1400's by a German inventor by the name of Karel Grod. Grod was often invited to royal banquets and it was there that he would release his small invention, the metal fly.

This pesky bug would flit across the room, buzz around the guests at the long dining table and finally return to Grod. A few years later, Grod went on to invent a life-size, mechanical eagle that could be seen flying around the town.


In 1739, a man by the name of Jacques de Vaucanson invented perhaps the most famous automaton. Simply known as, ‘The Duck,’ this mechanical bird had over 400 moving parts in each wing alone. These intricate workings allowed it to flap it’s wings up and down. But that’s not all. The Duck was also known for its quacking and even looked like it was breathing. However, it’s most extraordinary feat was perhaps its ability to ‘digest’ grain. It would eat the food have a drink then proceed to poop out a greenish pellet.

Since the original duck has disappeared, these mechanical abilities still remain a mystery today.


Two of the most fantastic, mechanical figures ever constructed were by Jean-Pierre Droz, a watch-maker, and his son Henri-Louis.

The Writer,’ a full-size boy seated at a desk was created by Jean-Pierre. This boy-bot would dip his pen in a bottle of ink, tap off the excess and begin to write a story. The sentences were always clear and correct and the hand moved to the beginning of each new line.

Jean-Pierre learned well from his father and created his own automaton. Titled the ‘Designer,’ this mechanical boy was much more advanced than his father’s. Designed to sketch pictures, this automaton paused to examine its work, corrected errors and even blew the eraser dust from the page.

This mechanical artist was so good King Louis XVI of France even posed for a portrait. After the automaton was finished with the kings picture, it put down the pencil and waved his hand to present its work. So impressed with his find, King Louis demonstrated it in England and had the Designer draw portraits of the English royalty as well.

Automatons are still being designed and made today. In fact, you may remember the hit movie, Hugo, he was an automaton. For more information and fun, check out my interview with automaton maker, Dug North, on Sunday May 29th.


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