Automata, Ancient Clockwork Mechanical Men
Clockwork Monk at the Smithsonian
Automaton figure of a monk: south Germany or Spain, c. 1560
Figure: head of poplar wood; head and limbs rendered naturalistically; modern habit.
Movement: iron; height: 39 cm. (15 3/8 in.)
There is a clockwork monk at the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian. He winds up with a key, then walks about, moving his arms, eyes and head. The mouth moves as if it is praying. He is about 15” tall and is likely over 450 years old.
The account tells that, in 1562, Don Carlos, the firstborn son of Philip II, was injured in a fall. This was the grandson of Charles V, then ruler of both the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire.
His recovery motivated the commission of this small mechanical monk. It is made of wood and iron. The mechanism is completely hidden, but x-rays have helped to reveal it’s complexity.
A recent Science Story on BBC Radio told the story of Descartes’ Daughter.
“ There’s a story told about French philosopher René Descartes and his daughter. He boards a ship for a voyage over the North Sea with a large wooden box which he insists be handled with such great care that the sea captain’s curiosity is aroused. When Descartes is out of his cabin the sea captain opens the box and is horrified to find a life sized automaton inside. He’s so shocked he throws the “daughter” overboard.”
René Descartes (1596 –1650), considered the father of modern Western philosophy, was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist.
A hundred years after the little automated monk was built, Descartes put forward the idea that living things are machines. He tried to use philosophy to illustrate that human soul and the body are separate.
By the 17th century, there was a real interest in clockwork automata. Mechanical toys were created by jewelers. They can be seen in museums now.
Descartes writes of his interest in automata and mechanical toys and it seems he even tried to build some.
French Clockwork Men
The Doctor Who Episode, The Girl in the Fireplace sets clockwork men in the French court of Louis XV. Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Madame de Pompadour was born in 1721. Clockwork toys would have been very familiar to her. Contemporary writers mention a miniature coach, and horses with passengers that moved, a peacock that walked and ate and many other clockwork novelties.