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Automata and Toys with Movement

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

By the 18th century, "one-of-a-kind" moving figures had reached their peak. These moving figures moved with amazing dexterity in a lifelike motion. Some per­formed magic tricks, played chess, told fortunes or danced.


Antique Doll with Movement. Automata Doll
Antique Doll with Movement

Source: May 1983 • Doll Reader , Pages 64-69


Hero, of Alexandria, in the second century B.C., used moving figures to demonstrate some of his theories. He described a mechanical theater in which the figures moved by an elaborate system of weights and pulleys. Variations of hi techniques were used over and over again in order to move figures of all kinds. Birds and animals flew through the air when inflated, a lion was activated from wheels under his feet, a brass mechanical man who moved and spoke was created and metal birds sang in a golden tree.

Automata Doll by Stevens & Brown
Doll with fabric head and painted features. When wound the tricycle zig-zags forward with the girl moving from side to side. Manufactured by Stevens & Brown, Cromwell, CT.

In the latter part of the Renaissance period, the European clocks with their complex mechanisms ushered in the wonders of moving figures acting out dramas, either comic or tragic. Depending on the type of clock, they performed every hour, half hour or quarter hour. By the 18th century, "one-of-a-kind" moving figures had reached their peak. These moving figures moved with amazing dexterity in a lifelike motion. Some per­formed magic tricks, played chess, told fortunes or danced.

When wound, the music plays and the central figure raises cups from the table showing different objects underneath. The two musicians on either side move their arms as if playing their instruments. Manufacturer un­known. France. 1860-1880.

Antique Automata Doll, Head Marked Simon & Halbig Germany
Doll at Dressing Table. When wound, the music plays and the bisque head figure raises her powder puff to and from her face and turns her head in different directions. Head marked Simon & Halbig Germany, 1900-1910.

At first these figures appeared to have been made for royalty or the wealthy alone but eventually, through viewing at museums and traveling exhibits, the paying public obtained the privilege of seeing these fantastic and almost unbelievable machines in action.

Mechanical Doll by Jules Steiner, France
Bisque head with composition lower arms and legs, cardboard torso. A mechanism is concealed within the torso and when wound the doll moves her head, arms, and legs, and cries "Mama" and "Papa.'' Manufactured by Jules Steiner, France. 1880-1890.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz created three automata that are still performing for the public at the Neuchatel Museum in Switzerland. They were first introduced by Droz in Paris in 1794; a lady musician, a boy who writes and a boy who draws.

Another world famous automata maker was Henri Maillardet. He was born in Switzerland in 1745, the son of a clock­maker. As a young man he worked as an apprentice to Jaquet-Droz. Later he spent much of his time in London where he acted as an agent for Jaquet-Droz. During this period he himself created several automata, one of the most outstanding being the Writing Child.

The Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum will have the pleasure and honor of exhibiting Maillardet's Writing Child in its exhibition of automata and toys with movement to be shown from May 14 through Christmas of 1983. The Writing Child will be on exhibit May 14, 1983, through August 14, 1983, through the generosity of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This famous automaton had passed through many hands after being on exhibit in 1826 and its whereabouts was unknown for many years.

Margaret Woodbury automaton
Drawing and writing by the Maillardet automaton.

Sometime in the late 1800s it came into the possession of Mr. John Penn Brock of Philadelphia. It was in poor condition, not operating and appeared to have been in a fire. Mr. Brock's grandchildren presented the automaton to the Franklin Institute in 1928. It was skillfully restored and put into working condition. After the restoration, the figure was able to write its own identi­fication, "I am the automaton of Maillardet". The figure is programmed to write this example and six other sketches and writings.

Maillardet's Writing Child.

The Strong's collection of automata and spring-driven toys includes both European and American examples with simple movement created either by pushing or pulling the toy, the use of levers, cranks, gravity, cord action, clockwork with or without music and spring-driven mechanisms. Clockwork automata is pro­duced today in limited quantity. Automated figures are manufactured for store window displays. Jean and Annette Frakas of France are making copies of some of the early automata using, at times, bisque heads and antique fabrics.

Michel Bertrand of Switzerland is one of the few master craftsmen left who can recreate a figure using an original automaton as a model. He also has designed and made "one-of-a­kind" automata to order. He creates the papier-mache' heads, bodies, beautiful clothing and remarkably intricate move­ments or action.

Mechanical Dolls, Heads by Schoenau & Hoffmeister. Germany.
Bisque head dolls seated in a boat. The toy is pulled along and the boy's head turns as he rows the boat. Heads made by Schoenau & Hoffmeister. Germany, circa 1910.

Making automata, whether it be copying the lovely antique pieces or designing and making originals, is really a lost art. Time and money does not permit the average individual the luxury of creating these wonders that many times took years to perfect.

Antique French Mechanical Dolls
LEFT: Bisque head doll with crying expression standing on a base which holds the mechanism and music box. When wound the music plays and she raises her broken doll up and then lowers her head and raises the hankerchief to her eyes. Manufactured by Lambert. France, circa 1890. RIGHT: Gypsy with tambourine. Bisque head doll stands on a base containing a clockwork mechanism and music box. When activated the music plays and the doll sways at the waist, her hand shakes the tambourine and she moves her head. France, circa 1880.
Antique French Mechanical Dolls
LEFT: When wound the music plays, the clown sticks out his tongue and touches the table with a magician's wand changing the objects under the cone four different times. France, 1890-1911. RIGHT: A bisque head with a papier-mache body. When wound the music plays and the doll moves her head from side to side and up and down. She pulls a bucket out of the well and a frog jumps up in the bucket. Decamps. France, 1880-1911.

Antique French Mechanical Bisque Head Doll Music Box Automation

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