Automaton (Gr. , self, and to move), a self-moving machine, or one which contains within itself the moving power. This description would make the term applicable to watches, musical boxes, etc, but it is generally used to designate only those machines which are made to imitate the motions of men and animals. Those constructed to imitate men are sometimes called androides. Probably the earliest allusion to self-moving machines in history is to the tripods moved on living wheels, and instinct with life, which Homer describes Vulcan as having contrived. Then come the walking statues, female dancers, and wooden cow of Daedalus, whose invention appears to have been wonderfully prolific in automatons. Archytas constructed his wonderful dove 400 years before Christ. In later times we have Friar Bacon's brazen head which spoke, and the eagle and iron fly of Regiomontanus, the former of which is said to have flown from the city, saluted the emperor, and returned; and the latter after flying round the room returned to its master. But the love of the marvellous has no doubt greatly improved upon the feats of the earlier inventors.
The first androides which acquired any celebrity was made by Al-bertus Magnus, in the 13th century; it moved like a man and even spoke. Thomas Aquinas is said to have been so alarmed by it, that he broke it in pieces with his staff, to the great grief of the unfortunate inventor, who exclaimed that he had destroyed the work of 30 years. Another similar invention of Descartes, which he named his daughter Francina, shared a similar fate; the captain of a vessel on board of which it was placed, thinking the devil must be in a machine that moved so like a human being, had it thrown overboard. Charlemagne received from Haroun al-Rashid a present of a water clock, in the dial of which a door opened at each hour, and when at noon the 12 doors were all thrown open, as many knights on horseback issued out, paraded round the dial, and then returning shut themselves in again. Similar contrivances are still extant in some ancient European cities, as Nuremberg in Germany and Heusden in Holland. A very amusing automaton group was constructed by M. Comus for Louis XIV., consisting of a coach and horses, a coachman, a page, and a lady inside.
The figures all performed their appropriate parts; the coach was driven up to the king and stopped, and the lady, let out by the page, presented a petition, and reentering the carriage was driven off. Next to Daedalus, Vaucanson, who lived in Paris in the early part of the last century, appears to have been possessed of the greatest skill in this department. He exhibited in 1738 a flageolet and tambourine player, which is probably the most perfect androides ever constructed, as his duck is no doubt the most perfect automaton. It played the flageolet with the left hand and beat the tambourine with the right, executing many pieces of music with wonderful accuracy. He also exhibited a duck in 1741, which moved, ate, drank, and even apparently digested and evacuated its food like a live duck. The figure would stretch out its neck to take food from the hand, and then would swallow it with the natural avidity of a duck, even the motion of the muscles of the neck-being perceptible. It would rise up on its feet, walk, swim, dabble in the water, and quack, wonderfully imitating the natural actions of the duck. In its mechanism it was constructed in many parts - as in the wings - as nearly like those parts of the bird as possible.
Vaucanson undertook, near the close of his life, to construct an automaton which would display all the mechanism of the circulation of the blood, the veins and arteries in which were to be of gum elastic; but the art of working this material was not then well understood, and there being long delay in the arrival of an anatomist sent by the king to attend to the work, Vaucanson became discouraged and gave it up. A father and son named Droz had the same remarkable talent. The former made a figure of a child, which sat at a desk, dipped its pen in the ink, and wrote in French. The latter, born in 1752, went to Paris at the age of 22 with a female figure which played different tunes on the harpsichord, following with its eyes and head the notes in the music book, and rising at the close and saluting the company. About the same time the abbe Mical made several automaton tinures, some in a group, which played different instruments of music. He also exhibited at the academy of sciences two heads, which articulated syllables.
Malzel in the early part of the present century exhibited a famous automaton trumpeter at Vienna, which played many of the French and Austrian marches, and for many years afterward was exhibited by a travelling troupe in most of the cities of Europe. Still later is the automaton of the ingenious Swiss mechanic Maillardet, a female figure that performs 18 tunes on the piano, with the natural movements of the fingers and eyes and heaving of the bosom. It continues in action for an hour. With it are an automaton magician; a boy that writes and draws; a little dancing figure that moves to music from the glass case it is in; a humming bird that comes out of a box. sings, and returns; a steel spider; and a hissing serpent. Kempelen's automaton chess-player was no true automaton, but constructed to contain a person, by whose intelligence the movements were controlled and the game played. The doors of the machine were opened apparently to expose the whole interior; but they were never all opened at the same time. A person could thus move from one part of the interior to another, keeping himself concealed. Such a one, known to be a skilful chess-player, travelled with the exhibition, and was never seen during the continuance of the game.
A very-ingenious automaton clarinet player was made by Van Oeckelen in Holland, and exhibited in New York about 1860. It performed operatic and classical selections, with accompaniment of other instruments played by living performers; it took the instrument from its mouth, moved its head and eyes, and bowed before the audience. It was wound up like a clock, and a drum, like that of a hand organ, was placed in its chest, a different one for every piece of music. The most perfect and latest is perhaps the speaking automaton of Faberman of Vienna, exhibited in New York in 1872. It is the result of a thorough physiological study of the human organs of speech, and their close imitation by the materials and mechanical arts of the present day. As these contrivances have no practical utility, serving only to display the ingenuity of the maker, their construction in the United States is confined to children's toys.