Automaton (from αὐτός, self, and μάω, to seize), a self-moving machine, or one in which the principle of motion is contained within the mechanism itself. According to this description, clocks, watches and all machines of a similar kind, are automata, but the word is generally applied to contrivances which simulate for a time the motions of animal life. If the human figure and actions be represented, the automaton has sometimes been called specially an androides. We have very early notices of the construction of automata, e.g. the tripods of Vulcan, and the moving figures of Daedalus. In 400 B.C., Archytas of Tarentum is said to have made a wooden pigeon that could fly, and during the middle ages numerous instances of the construction of automata are recorded. Regiomontanus is said to have made of iron a fly, which would flutter round the room and return to his hand, and also an eagle, which flew before the emperor Maximilian when he was entering Nuremberg. Roger Bacon is said to have forged a brazen head which spoke, and Albertus Magnus to have had an androides, which acted as doorkeeper, and was broken to pieces by Aquinas. Of these, as of some later instances, e.g. the figure constructed by Descartes and the automata exhibited by Dr Camus, not much is accurately known.
But in the 18th century, Jacques de Vaucanson, the celebrated mechanician, exhibited three admirable figures, - the flute-player, the tambourine-player, and the duck, which was capable of eating, drinking, and imitating exactly the natural voice of that fowl. The means by which these results had been produced were clearly seen, and a great impulse was given to the construction of similar figures. Knauss exhibited at Vienna an automaton which wrote; a father and son named Droz constructed several ingenious mechanical figures which wrote and played music; Frederick Kaufmann and Leonard Maelzel made automatic trumpeters who could play several marches. The Swiss have always been celebrated for their mechanical ingenuity, and they construct most of the curious toys, such as flying and singing birds, which are frequently met with in industrial exhibitions. The greatest difficulty has generally been experienced in devising any mechanism which shall successfully simulate the human voice (not to be compared with the gramophone, which reproduces mechanically a real voice). No attempt has been thoroughly successful, though many have been made. A figure exhibited by Fabermann of Vienna remains the best.
Kempelen's famous chess-player for many years astonished and puzzled Europe. This figure, however, was no true automaton, although the mechanical contrivances for concealing the real performer and giving effect to his desired movements were exceedingly ingenious. J. N. Maskelyne, in more recent times (1875-1880), has been prominent in exhibiting his automata, Psycho (who played cards) and Zoe (who drew pictures), at the Egyptian Hall, London, but the secret of these contrivances was well kept. (See Conjuring.)