Kya deLongchamps is moved by the centuries old skills used in the automaton. 

Another summer — fingers sticky with split rag-worms and the drips of shared 99s. We wound up our splintered reels from a tug of greasy water on the sea wall, and vaulted onto a friendly cross-bar for home.

One thing was always worth a stop and an old penny more. An arthritic fortune teller, my first introduction to the ancient art of the automaton, dwelt in the murky open fronted halls of the Fun Fair in Bray. 

A life-size male head and shoulders it was imprisoned to the waist in a sandy landscape, and crowned with an unlikely turban. The Sultan (white-skinned with green eyes — we hadn’t a clue), he shuddered out his weighty pronouncements through failing gears. 

The paint was bruised, the gems on the outfit foggy, everything exhausted, faded and ghoulishly dusty into the creases — but we remained fascinated by the creepy, glass eyed stare and the flat certainty of that voice, year in, year out.

What separates automatons from puppets is that they are mechanically driven. It’s the self-propulsion, that indication of independent ‘life’ that delivers the magic, the mystery, and in some cases an unsettling experience for a single or gathered audience. 

The history of automatons goes right back to classical times, with myths and oral histories from earlier millennia recording beautiful figural toys that moved about and even performed simple tasks at a noble’s table, like pouring wine.

The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206) by Ibn al-Razzaz ali-Jazira, shows that the Muslims of Baghdad, the Chinese and Indian cultures had for centuries treasured small and monumental technical wonders like cam-shafts that foretell sophisticated mechanisms of the Industrial Revolution.

The 8.5m high Elephant Clock designed by Al-Jazira himself was reproduced (yes to life size), complete with a human rider who clashes cymbals to mark the time in a shopping centre in Dubai by the Muslim Heritage Council. If you’re ever in Le Locle in Switzerland, its Clock Museum has another of Al-Jazira’s Elephant Clocks outside the building.

The skills of the clockmaker — precision gears, cogs, balances and springs decimating stored energy in measures, are evident in most kinetic sculpture. European town councils used little figures flitting through doors on the hour to add prestige and interest to their municipal clocks. 

Leonardo da Vinci, never to be outdone in any sphere, had a go at robotics in the 15th century, designing a ‘knight’ that he presented at the court of Milan in 1495.

Dressed in full German-Italian armour, his automaton could stand, sit and raise its visor, and terrified the ladies. He later designed a walking, rearing lion for Louis XII and François I which prowled the court and gifted the amazed royal with a bouquet of lilies through a booby hatch on the flank.

In the 18th century, bundles of tied-up rags for dolls, were the extent of most infant joys. Just imagine the excitement of seeing an animated fantasy creature or exotic human character just blink at you at travelling fair.

Bored gentry would be delighted in the shifting candle-light after dinner, as a tiny bird sprang out from a pierced gold box singing in a reedy whistle. The more ‘memory’ the piece had the more interesting it was. 

Expensive mechanical dramas for aristocratic customers of German and Italian makers included galleons with real firing canons, entire miniature orchestras, and enchanting little scribes who would appear to write poetry.

Look up work of Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1792) and his Digesting Duck (when your cornflakes are safely down and the nerves can stand it).

Another, more polite, surviving and spectacular avian example from the 1700s, the life size Silver Swan c 1773, still delivers after two and half centuries, and forms the centrepiece and branding for the Bowes Museum in Co Durham.

Set on a river of glass rods that rotate to replicate twisting eddies of bright water, it performs a 35- second drama that never varies. The exquisite bird after a balletic 180 degree look around the room, notices a fish and appears to catch it in a sinuous plunge.

The original piece featured a crystal waterfall, but even in its reduced condition, fringed in flaccid silver leaves, its action and workmanship stuns visitors of all ages at 2pm each day.

My wonky-seer in Wicklow, made in the 1940s probably in America, for all his hokey failings (and in need of a good oiling), was part of this weird techno-science of air-pressure, horology, hydro-mechanics and ancient camshafts.

I’m sure to the Victorian Steam Punk collector, he’s now absolutely priceless.


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