Living Machines: Automata Between Nature and Artifice

Article by Laura Tradii
University of Oxford,
MSc History of Science, Medicine and Technology

In a rather unknown operetta morale, the great Leopardi imagines an award competition organised by the fictitious Academy of Syllographers. Being the 19th Century the “Age of Machines”, and despairing of the possibility of improving mankind, the Academy will reward the inventors of three automata, described in a paroxysm of bitter irony: the first will have to be a machine able to act like a trusted friend, ready to assist his acquaintances in the moment of need, and refraining from speaking behind their back; the second machine will be a “steam-powered artificial man” programmed to accomplish virtuous deeds, while the third will be a faithful woman. Considering the great variety of automata built in his century, Leopardi points out, such achievements should not be considered impossible.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, automata (from the Greek, “self moving” or “acting of itself”) had become a real craze in Europe, above all in aristocratic circles. Already a few centuries earlier, hydraulic automata had often been installed in the gardens of palaces to amuse the visitors. Jessica Riskin, author of several works on automata and their history, describes thus the machines which could be found, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, in the French castle of Hesdin:

“3 personnages that spout water and wet people at will”; a “machine for wetting ladies when they step on it”; an “engien [sic] which, when its knobs are touched, strikes in the face those who are underneath and covers them with black or white [flour or coal dust]”.1



In the fifteenth century, always according to Riskin, Boxley Abbey in Kent displayed a mechanical Jesus which could be moved by pulling some strings. The Jesus muttered, blinked, moved his hands and feet, nodded, and he could smile and frown. In this period, the fact that automata required a human to operate them, instead of moving of their own accord as suggested by the etymology, was not seen as cheating, but rather as a necessity.2

In the eighteenth century, instead, mechanics and engineers attempted to create automata which could move of their own accord once loaded, and this change could be contextualised in a time in which mechanistic theories of nature had been put forward. According to such theories, nature could be understood in fundamentally mechanical terms, like a great clockwork whose dynamics and processes were not much different from the ones of a machine. According to Descartes, for example, a single mechanical philosophy could explain the actions of both living beings and natural phenomena.3
Inventors attempted therefore to understand and artificially recreate the movements of animals and human beings, and the mechanical duck built by Vaucanson is a perfect example of such attempts.

With this automaton, Vaucanson purposed to replicate the physical process of digestion: the duck would eat seeds, digest them, and defecate. In truth, the automaton simply simulated these processes, and the faeces were prepared in advance. The silver swan built by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), instead, imitated with an astonishing realism the movements of the animal, which moved (and still moves) his neck with surprising flexibility. Through thin glass tubes, Merlin even managed to recreate the reflection of the water on which the swan seemed to float.

Vaucanson’s Flute Player, instead, played a real flute, blowing air into the instruments thanks to mechanical lungs, and moving his fingers. On a similar vein, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a little model of Napoleon was displayed in the United Kingdom: the puppet breathed, and it was covered in a material which imitated the texture of skin.  The advertisement for its exhibition at the Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak’.4

The attempt to artificially recreate natural processes included other functions beyond movement. In 1779, the Academy of Sciences of Saint Petersburg opened a competition to mechanise the most human of all faculties, language, rewarding who would have succeeded in building a machine capable of pronouncing vowels. A decade later, Kempelen, the inventor of the famous Chess-Playing Turk, built a machine which could pronounce 19 consonants (at least according to Kempelen himself).5

In virtue of their uncanny nature, automata embody the tension between artifice and nature which for centuries has animated Western thought. The quest not only for the manipulation, but for the perfecting of the natural order, typical of the Wunderkammer or the alchemical laboratory, finds expression in the automaton, and it is this presumption that Leopardi comments with sarcasm. For Leopardi, like for some of his contemporaries, the idea that human beings could enhance what Nature already created perfect is a pernicious misconception. The traditional narrative of progress, according to which the lives of humans can be improved through technology, which separates mankind from the cruel state of nature, is challenged by Leopardi through his satire of automata. With his proverbial optimism, the author believes that all that distances humans from Nature can only be the cause of suffering, and that no improvement in the human condition shall be achieved through mechanisation and modernisation.

This criticism is substantiated by the fear that humans may become victims of their own creation, a discourse which was widespread during the Industrial Revolution. Romantic writer Jean Paul (1763-1825), for example, uses automata to satirise the society of the late eighteenth century, imagining a dystopic world in which machines are used to control the citizens and to carry out even the most trivial tasks: to chew food, to play music, and even to pray.6

The mechanical metaphors which were often used in the seventeenth century to describe the functioning of the State, conceptualised as a machine formed of different cogs or institutions, acquire here a dystopic connotation, becoming the manifestation of a bureaucratic, mechanical, and therefore dehumanising order. It is interesting to see how observations of this kind recur today in debates over Artificial Intelligence, and how, quoting Leopardi, a future is envisioned in which “the uses of machines [will come to] include not only material things, but also spiritual ones”.

A closer future than we may think, since technology modifies in entirely new directions our way of life, our understanding of ourselves, and our position in the natural order.


[1]  Jessica Riskin, Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence.
[2]  Grafton, The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine, p.56.
[3]  Grafton, p.58.
[4]  Jennifer Walls, Captivating Respiration: the “Breathing Napoleon”.
[5]  John P. Cater, Electronically Speaking: Computer Speech Generation, Howard M. Sams & Co., 1983, pp. 72-74.
[6]  Jean Paul, 1789. Discusso in Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination di Minsoo Kang.