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.
BY MARGARET WHITTON. PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF MARGARET WOODBURY STRONG MUSEUM
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Bisque Head Doll Music Box Automation