7 Amazing Automatons You Can See in Action

Carl Court/Getty Images
Carl Court/Getty Images

Robots are increasingly becoming a part of modern life, but their roots go surprisingly far back. Most early automatons were created as entertainment for wealthy owners and their mechanisms frequently kept secret, lending them a touch of magic. Today, a number of early examples survive in museums around the world, continuing to delight and inspire us.

1. THE MECHANICAL MONK

This wooden mechanical monk is just 16 inches high. When wound with a key he trundles along in a square shape, mouthing prayers and occasionally bringing a cross to his lips and kissing it. It's believed the monk was built around 1560 by Spanish master watchmaker Juanelo Turriano for the Spanish King Philip II. Philip’s son had almost died after an accident, and the king prayed to God for his recovery, promising to give a miracle for a miracle. Legend tells us that the mechanical monk, who constantly prays in penance, was the miracle Philip had created to celebrate his son’s recovery. The Smithsonian's National Museum of History and Technology acquired the monk from Geneva in 1977, allowing researchers to investigate the secrets of the monk’s uncanny movements and preserve its magic for future generations. Today it is part of the collections of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where it's sadly not currently not on display—but you can check out its moves above.

2. THE SILVER SWAN

A beautiful musical automaton built in 1773, this life-size swan appears to swim, preen itself, and catch a fish. Its movements are controlled by three separate mechanisms designed by John Joseph Merlin, a famous inventor of his time. The swan was originally part of the repertoire of London showman James Cox, who showed it at his Mechanical Museum, where it was hugely popular with the crowds. The swan later moved to Paris, where it was part of the 1867 Paris International Exhibition. Mark Twain saw it there and was transfixed, writing in The Innocents Abroad: "I watched a Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes—watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop."

Art collectors John and Joséphine Bowes also first saw the swan at the Paris exhibition and made up their minds to buy it, securing it in 1872 for £200 (roughly $23,000 today). The swan can still be seen at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, UK, where every day at 2 p.m. it performs for a beguiling 40 seconds.

3. THE DRAUGHTSMAN, WRITER, AND MUSICIAN

Pierre Jaquet-Droz was an 18th-century Swiss watchmaker whose clocks were popular with royalty, and this patronage allowed him to indulge his passion for automata. His most famous creations are the Writer, Draughtsman, and Musician, three humanoid automatons unveiled in 1774. The Writer dips its pen into an ink stand and can write any word of up to 40 characters. The Draughtsman inscribes one of four pre-programmed images, and The Musician is a girl who can play up to five different songs at an organ. These automatons toured Europe in the 1770s and 1780s, amusing the greatest minds of the day before eventually settling for good in the early 1900s at the Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, where they are still on display.

4. TIPU’S TIGER

This fascinating, if gruesome, automaton depicts a tiger mauling a European soldier to death. It was made in the 1790s for Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore in South India. During this period the British East India Company was fighting for control of the region against Tipu Sultan, who used a tiger motif as a symbol of his leadership and a representation of his hoped-for defeat of invading British forces. Unfortunately for Tipu, his optimistic automaton did not foretell victory, and he was killed in 1799 as the British took control of his capital, Seringapatam.

The spoils of war were divided up by the soldiers and the almost life-size wooden tiger was sent back to London as a curiosity. It was an immediate success with the public, the crowds amazed by the marvelous mechanism. When wound up, a pipe organ plays, the man’s arm moves plaintively, and he emits a dying groan. Today the tiger is one of the most popular items on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, although unfortunately it is so delicate it is rarely played.

5. THE DULCIMER PLAYER

La Joueuse de Tympanon, or The Dulcimer Player, was made by cabinetmaker David Roentgen and presented as a surprise to his patron Louis XVI for the queen, Marie-Antoinette, in 1784. This automaton is a small, carved wooden woman (rumored to have hair woven from Marie-Antoinette’s own hair and to wear a dress made from the fabric of one of the queen’s own dresses) who plays the dulcimer, a stringed instrument manipulated by striking the strings with a metal hammer. The mesmerizing little automaton can play eight different tunes and because of the way her head moves as she plays, she is unnervingly lifelike. Today she can be seen at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, though unfortunately she is rarely wound up and played.

6. KARAKURI TEA SERVING ROBOTS

Karakuri are traditional Japanese mechanized puppets, popular during the Edo period (1603–1868). The most famous are the zashiki karakuri, which are mechanized household servants inspired by European clockwork. Examples of tea-serving karakuri can be seen in the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo; when wound up, they move forward in a straight line, proffering a bowl of hot tea (supplied by a real-life servant), bowing their head once they stop.

7. ERIC, BRITAIN’S FIRST ROBOT

Eric was the first robot built in Britain. He was constructed in the late 1920s by journalist and entrepreneur William Richards and aircraft engineer Alan Reffell as a stand-in for the Duke of York when the latter was unable to open an exhibition of model engineering. Covered in aluminum and standing 6.5 feet tall, Eric could move his arms, bow, and shoot blue sparks from his mouth, which caused a sensation wherever he went. He was so successful that he went on tour to America, but despite initially gaining plenty of coverage in the press, his ultimate fate is unknown (although researchers think he was likely cannibalized for parts). In 2016, Ben Russell, curator at London's Science Museum, discovered Eric's story and became determined to recreate this iconic robot for the museum. Russell ran a Kickstarter to get funding and scoured the archives for images of the robot in action, finally spending five months building a replica of Eric. This replica is now on display in the museum for all to admire.

Learn Travel Blogging, Novel Writing, Editing, and More With This $30 Creative Writing Course Bundle

Centre of Excellence
Centre of Excellence

It seems like everyone is a writer lately, from personal blog posts to lengthy Instagram captions. How can your unique ideas stand out from the clutter? These highly reviewed courses in writing for travel blogs, novel writing, and even self-publishing are currently discounted and will teach you just that. The Ultimate Creative Writing Course Bundle is offering 10 courses for $29.99, which are broken down into 422 bite-sized lessons to make learning manageable and enjoyable.

Access your inner poet or fiction writer and learn to create compelling works of literature from home. Turn that passion into a business through courses that teach the basics of setting up, hosting, and building a blog. Then, the social media, design, and SEO lessons will help distinguish your blog.

Once you perfect your writing, the next challenge is getting that writing seen. While the bundle includes lessons in social media and SEO, it also includes a self-publishing course to take things into your own hands to see your work in bookshops. You’ll learn to keep creative control and royalties with lessons on the basics of production, printing, proofreading, distribution, and marketing efforts. The course bundle also includes lessons in freelance writing that teach how to make a career working from home.

If you’re more of an artistic writer, the calligraphy course will perfect your classical calligraphy scripts to confidently shape the thick and thin strokes of each letter. While it can definitely be a therapeutic hobby, it’s also a great side-hustle. Create your own designs and make some extra cash selling them as wedding placards or wall art.

Take your time perfecting your craft with lifetime access to the 10 courses included in The Ultimate Creative Writing Course Bundle. At the discounted price of $29.99, you’ll have spent more money on the coffee you’re sipping while you write your next novel than the courses themselves.

 

The Ultimate Creative Writing Course Bundle - $29.99

See Deal

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.