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-servingkarakuri 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.
If you're prone to picturing your favorite Christmas characters as stop-motion puppets, you can thank Rankin/Bass. The production company founded by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass found success in transforming holiday songs and myths into fully-developed television specials in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. Their most popular specials, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, are still staples of holiday programming decades after they first aired.
But not every holiday film that played under the Rankin/Bass banner was an instant success. After adapting the most beloved Christmas stories, the company broadened its definition of holiday material, with varying degrees of success. Some films were forgettable, and others were so strange and unsettling that young viewers forced themselves to forget. Here are some Rankin/Bass specials that may be missing from holiday television marathons this year.
1. Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976)
After the stressful events of his 1964 Christmas special, Rudolph deserved a vacation. In Rudolph's Shiny New Year(1976), the red-nosed reindeer barely has a day to rest before being sent on his next adventure. When Santa Claus and his reindeer return home to the North Pole after delivering presents on Christmas, they learn that Happy the Baby New Year is missing. It’s up to Rudolph to bring him home before midnight on New Year’s Eve or else the calendar will be stuck at December 31. And because it wouldn’t be a Rankin/Bass cartoon without a terrifying villain, a vulture named Eon the Terrible is racing to catch Happy first so he can live forever. Thankfully, Rudolph has a caveman, a Medieval knight, and Benjamin Franklin on his side.
2. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II (1976)
The Little Drummer Boy from 1968 ends with the birth of Jesus Christ, a.k.a. the events of Christmas. This meant that Rankin/Bass’s most overtly religious Christmas special wasn’t an obvious choice for a follow-up, but the studio still released one in 1976. The Little Drummer Boy, Book II is inspired by "Silver Bells"—a song whose lyrics have nothing to do with the first Christmas at Bethlehem. In the sequel, the drummer boy Aaron and the wise man Melchior join forces to protect silver bells made for baby Jesus from the Roman soldiers plotting to steal them.
3. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)
By the late 1970s, it was apparent that Rankin/Bass was running out of Christmas myths to expand into television specials. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, their 1977 stop motion film, tells the story of an outcast donkey who experiences a series of traumatic events during the Roman Empire. After being bullied by other animals, left for dead by his owner, and suffering the loss of his mother, Nestor becomes a hero by carrying a pregnant Mary to Bethlehem, where she gives birth to Jesus. Needless to say, Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey didn’t have the same cultural impact as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
4. The First Christmas: The Story of the First Christmas Snow (1975)
It may have a happy ending, but The First Christmas (1975) is the bleakest movie on this list. An orphaned shepherd named Lucas is taken in by a group of nuns after he’s blinded by lightning. When snow falls during the abbey’s Christmas pageant, Lucas miraculously regains his eyesight and sees snow for the first time. The story swaps Rankin/Bass's signature humor and fantasy for heavy-handed sentimentality, which may be why it didn’t land as well with kids as the company’s other holiday specials. One highlight is a voice performance by Angela Lansbury as the narrator.
5. Jack Frost (1979)
So this film from 1979 is technically a Groundhog Day special, but its connection to winter means it’s usually lumped in with the rest of Rankin/Bass’s Christmas programming. A groundhog named Pardon-Me-Pete (voiced by Buddy Hackett) narrates the story of Jack Frost. After Jack Frost falls in love with a woman on Earth, Father Winter agrees to make him human, with the catch that Jack will turn back into a sprite if he fails to obtain a house, a horse, a bag of gold, and a wife by the first sign of spring. The special is notable for its weird characters, including a villain with a clockwork horse and henchmen. And—spoiler alert!—because Jack doesn’t get the girl at the end, it’s one of the few Rankin/Bass films that doesn’t have a happy ending.
6. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979)
In 1979, Rankin/Bass gave two of its most iconic Christmas characters—Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—their own movie. The studio was so confident in the product that Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July even had a brief theatrical release overseas. But the film has failed to take the place of the original specials in the public consciousness—maybe because seeing snow snakes terrorize Rudolph and watching an evil wizard transform into a tree were too much for younger viewers to handle.
7. Pinocchio's Christmas (1980)
The story of Pinocchio may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Christmas, but that didn’t stop Rankin/Bass from turning the classic Italian fairytale into a holiday special. Pinocchio's Christmas (1980) features many of the same themes and characters as The Adventures of Pinocchio—only this version of the tale centers around the puppet’s first Christmas. Santa Claus even makes a cameo appearance.
8. The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is one of the most widely adapted stories of all time, so of course it shows up in Rankin/Bass’s filmography. An insect named B.A.H. Humbug narrates this musical retelling from 1978, with Walter Matthau starring as Ebeneezer Scrooge. The Stingiest Man in Town joins Frosty the Snowman as one of the few Rankin/Bass Christmas productions made with traditional 2D animation instead of stop-motion.
9. The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold (1981)
Rankin/Bass’s streak of mashing up Christmas with other holidays reached peak weirdness in 1981. That’s when the studio released The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold—a story that follows a young Irish sailor who helps a clan of leprechauns protect their gold from an evil banshee named Old Mag the Hag. By trying to create a special that could air around Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day, the filmmakers ended up with something that made little sense at any time of year.
10. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)
In 1970, Rankin/Bass explored how Kris Kringle became Santa Claus with Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town. Fifteen years later, the studio produced a film that provided an alternate origin story for the character, based on L. Frank Baum's 1902 children's book of the same name. This second special wasn’t as well-received as the first. It starts with an antler-sporting sorcerer called the Great Ak finding an abandoned baby in the forest. The child is taken in and raised by wood nymphs, eventually growing up to become a jolly man who delivers toys to children—all while fighting monsters called Awgwas on the side. It ends with a council of mythical beings granting Santa Claus immortality. What was arguably Rankin/Bass’s most unusual Christmas special was also the last to use stop-motion animation.
Though it’s officially classified as a romantic comedy, Love Actually—Richard Curtis’s intertwining tale of love and loss in London in the midst of the Christmas season—has become a staple of holiday movie marathons everywhere. Here are 25 things you might not have known about the hit 2003 film.
1. Love Actually‘s airport footage was shot with hidden cameras.
Footage of passengers being welcomed and embraced by loved ones at Heathrow Airport was shot on location with hidden cameras for a week. In the film’s DVD commentary, writer-director Richard Curtis explains that when something special was caught on camera, a crew member would race out to have its subjects sign a waiver so the moment might be included in Love Actually. This was a fitting production device, as Curtis claims that watching the love expressed at the arrival gate of LAX is what inspired him to write the ensemble romance in the first place.
2. Four plot lines were cut from Love Actually.
Curtis initially aimed to include 14 love stories in the film. Two were clipped in the scripting phase, but two were shot and cut in post. Those lost before production involved a girl with a wheelchair, and one about a boy who records a love song for a classmate who ultimately hooks up with his drummer. Shot but cut for time was a brief aside featuring anAfrican couple supporting each other during a famine, and another storyline that followed home a schoolheadmistress, revealing her long-time commitment to her lesbian partner.
3. A fifth of Love Actually is commonly cut from television broadcasts.
It might be of little surprise that the raciest element of this holiday movie rarely makes it on TV. The love story of John and Judy has Martin Freeman and Joanna Page playing a pair of stand-ins on an erotic drama. Their scenes have the pair mimicking sex acts, but even as simulations of simulated sex, their storyline is usually deemed too hot for TV.
4. Martine McCutcheon’s role in Love Actually was penned just for her.
Curtis wrote his screenplay with some stars in mind, including Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, and McCutcheon, the charismatic English ingénue best known for her role on BBC drama EastEnders. So sure was Curtis that he wanted McCutcheon for the role of the love interest to the Prime Minister that he had the character’s name as "Martine" in early drafts. Curtis explained in the DVD commentary that the name was changed to "Natalie" before McCutcheon’s audition, "so she wouldn’t get cocky."
5. Richard Curtis sent request letters to his American talent.
Laura Linney, Billy Bob Thornton, and Denise Richards received letters asking them to consider a role in the film. Both actresses were impressed by the unconventional move, but Linney told The Daily Beast she was even more flattered by its contents.
"I got a letter in the mail from Richard Curtis saying that he’d been trying to cast this part, and he’d kept saying to his partner, Emma Freud, that he’d been looking for a ‘Laura Linney-type,’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you ask Laura Linney?’"
6. Bill Nighy didn’t realize he had auditioned for Love Actually.
Peter Mountain, Universal Pictures
This was the first collaboration between Nighy and Curtis, with the former playing the shameless, comeback-seeking rocker Billy Mack. On the film’s 10-year anniversary, Nighy recalled to The Daily Beast, "I did a rehearsal reading of the script as a favor to the great casting director, Mary Selway, who had been trying to get me into a film for a long time. I thought it was simply to help her hear the script aloud and to my genuine surprise I was given the job."
7. Love Actually‘s actors had their own trailer park village during production.
"We didn’t all film together, but we had a big trailer park for all the cast," Nighy told The Guardian. "There were so many famous people in there, we used to talk about being on Liam Neeson Way or Emma Thompson Road or Hugh Grant Avenue. And it was a masterpiece of diplomacy, too; we all had the same size and type of trailer." Linney remembered the place having a warm sense of community.
8. One scene from Love Actually was lifted directly from Four Weddings And A Funeral.
In Four Weddings and a Funeral, also penned by Curtis, there was a scene where Hugh Grant’s character Charles flirts with a woman at a wedding by mocking the terrible catering, only to discover that she is the caterer. The scene was cut from the 1994 film, but was reshot nearly a decade later with Kris Marshall acting out the flirtatious faux pas. In the commentary track, Curtis admits that some drafts of the Love Actually script still had Charles’s name on portions of the scene.
9. The late Joanna was played by a real-life Richard Curtis crush.
In the commentary, Curtis also confessed his affection and admiration for writer-director Rebecca Frayn and how it led to a heartbreaking scene in Love Actually. She’s uncredited in the film because she never has a scene to perform. But when Curtis needed images to create a slideshow of Sam’s beloved mum/Daniel’s departed wife, he turned to Frayn, asking for "all the prettiest pictures of her from her whole life." In real-life, Frayn is married to Oscar-nominated Scottish producer Andy Harries.
10. Emma Thompson shot her crying scene 12 times.
Arguably the saddest moment in Love Actually is when Thompson’s character realizes her husband has been unfaithful. In the privacy of their bedroom, she listens to Joni Mitchell’s "Both Sides Now" and weeps.
"We decided to do it like how Mike Newell did it in Four Weddings—I shot in medium-wide, and didn’t move the camera," Curtis recalled. "We just let it happen, and Emma walked into the room 12 times in a row and sobbed. It was an amazing feat of acting." He also noted this was the only scene she was asked to perform that day.
11. Hugh Grant did not want to dance.
Though Grant and Curtis had worked together on Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, they had a deep disagreement on how the Prime Minister should be played. Grant wanted it to be a grounded performance and resented Curtis’s push to make the part more whimsical. This came to a head when shooting Grant’s dance number, which the actor refused to rehearse.
"He kept on putting it off, and he didn’t like the song—it was originally a Jackson 5 song, but we couldn’t get it—so he was hugely unhappy about it," Curtis explained. "We didn’t shoot it until the final day and it went so well that when we edited it, it had gone too well, and he was singing along with the words!" It was a tricky thing to cut, but the final result with Girls Aloud’s cover of “Jump (For My Love)” speaks for itself.
12. Tony Blair found it impossible to live up to Hugh Grant’s fictional prime minister.
In 2005, when facing criticism for his dealings with the United States, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair responded by saying, "I know there’s a bit of us that would like me to do a Hugh Grant in Love Actually and tell America where to get off. But the difference between a good film and real life is that in real life there’s the next day, the next year, the next lifetime to contemplate the ruinous consequences of easy applause."
13. It took 45 minutes to pick out Aurelia’s underwear.
When the loose pages of Jamie’s (Colin Firth) in-progress novel blow into a nearby lake, Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz) is quick to strip down and dive in to rescue them. But in the DVD commentary, Curtis admits that what she wore beneath her cozy sweater was a major matter of debate that involved a lengthy meeting with his producers and 20 different sets of bras and panties to be considered.
14. Simon Pegg auditioned for Love Actually.
Before he broke out with 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, Simon Pegg was best known for his work on the British sitcom Spaced. It was in this stage of his career that he was eyed for the role of Rufus, the jewelry salesman in Love Actually. However, Curtis ended up casting Rowan Atkinson, who was not only a bigger star but a longtime friend from their college days; the two had previously worked together on Four Weddings and A Funeral, Mr. Bean, and Black Adder.
15. Rowan Atkinson’s character was meant to be an angel.
Rather than just an overenthusiastic gift wrapper with a good Samaritan streak at the airport, Atkinson’s Rufus was initially written as a heavenly helper in disguise. A scene was even shot were he’d evaporate after helping Sam get past security at Heathrow. "But in the end," Curtis said in commentary, "the film turned out so sort of multiplicitous that the idea of introducing an extra layer of supernatural beings was (too much)."
16. Sarah’s apartment is based on Helen Fielding’s.
When Sarah (Laura Linney) takes her office crush Karl (Rodrigo Santoro) back to her flat, a crane shot reveals that her bedroom is perched above the first floor, with a half-wall serving as a sort of balcony. In the DVD commentary track, Curtis mentioned this layout was poached from the Bridget Jones’s Diary author’s home. To him, it seemed a charming staging place for this tender seduction scene.
17. Test audiences spurred a change to the ending of Sarah’s story.
Curtis originally intended for Sarah and Karl’s love story to fizzle out after the phone call from her brother. However, when Love Actually was screened to test audiences, the feedback begged for a clearer resolution. So Curtis provided it, creating an extra scene in reshoots that made it unmistakable that Sarah and Karl would not end up together. "Be careful what you wish for," he warned on the DVD commentary.
18. Andrew Lincoln hand-wrote those romantic signs.
Peter Mountain, Universal Pictures
In 2013, The Walking Dead star reminisced about his climactic gesture in Love Actually with Entertainment Weekly, and revealed, "It is my handwriting! It’s funny, because the art department did it, and then I said, ‘Well, can I do it?’ because I like to think that my handwriting is really good. Actually, it ended up with me having to sort of trace over the art department’s, so it is my handwriting, but with a sort of pencil stencil underneath."
19. The American bar scene included some improv.
Peter Mountain, Universal Studios
Regarding the scene where three American girls (Elisha Cuthbert, January Jones, and Ivana Milicevic) flirt with Kris Marshall, Cuthbert told VH1, "It was such a creative space and we were allowed to improvise and try different things and it wasn’t just completely set into Richard’s writing. I mean we were allowed to sort of venture … It was nice that we got to sort of play around.”
Curtis remembers it differently, noting in the commentary track that the Brits were "respectful" with his script, but these Americans wanted to "pep it up a bit."
20. Bernard is a running joke based on a real man.
Every film Curtis writes contains a "Bernard," and he’s always the butt of a joke. In Love Actually, he’s the son of Thompson’s character who is described as "horrid." This all dates back to a love triangle that didn’t turn in Curtis’s favor. Bernard was the name of a young man who won the heart of Curtis’s crush Anne, and so he will forever be lampooned. In real life, Bernard is a successful politician, namely Bernard Jenkin, Member of Parliament for Harwich and North Essex since 2010.
21. Olivia Olson’s performance of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” was too good—which was problematic.
Over 200 girls auditioned for the part of Joanna, the talent show star that young Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) falls hard for. But with pipes that blew away the casting director, Olivia Olson blew the competition away. In the commentary track, Curtis notes that Olson sang the song "All I Want For Christmas Is You" so flawlessly that he feared it sounded manufactured. He had sound editors cut in breaths to the performance to make it more believable.
22. Sam and Joanna reunited in 2008.
Child stars Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Olivia Olson were utterly adorable together as drum-playing Sam and his grade school crush Joanna. But Love Actually wasn’t the end of the pair’s onscreen romance. They were reunited in 2008 when Olson joined the voice cast of the Disney Channel cartoon show Phineas and Ferb. While Brodie-Sangster lends his voice to the oft-silent Ferb, Olson often sings as Ferb’s crush, the sleek and cool Vanessa Doofenshmirtz.
23. The movie has already been remade—three times!
The central concept of a movie packed with stars and intertwining love stories has been translated into a trio of films. The first is the Indian offering A Tribute To Love, an unofficial remake in the Hindi language. Next, Poland took a turn with Letters to St. Nicolas. The most recent version is Japan’s It All Began When I Met You, which borrows the concept as well as the film’s poster layout.
24. Love Actually got a sequel (of sorts) in 2017.
In March 2017, in celebration of Red Nose Day, Curtis and several members of the original cast—including Grant, Knightley, Firth, Neeson, Nighy, Lincoln, and Atkinson—reprised their characters for a short film, Red Nose Day Actually, that caught viewers up on what the characters are doing today.
"I would never have dreamt of writing a sequel to Love Actually, but I thought it might be fun to do 10 minutes to see what everyone is now up to," Curtis said when the project was announced. "Who has aged best?—I guess that’s the big question ... or is it so obviously Liam?" The short debuted in the U.K. on March 24, 2017, but American audiences had to wait until May 25, 2017 to see what happened to their favorite characters. (Here’s a cheat sheet.)
25. Alan Rickman’s death prevented Emma Thompson from appearing in the sequel.
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
When it was announced that Curtis would be revisiting some of the Love Actually characters for a short sequel, he knew right away that out of respect for Alan Rickman—who passed away in early 2016—he did not want to revisit Emma Thompson’s character.
"Richard wrote to me and said, ‘Darling we can’t write anything for you because of Alan,’ and I said, ‘No of course, it would be sad, too sad,’" Thompson explained. "It’s too soon. It’s absolutely right because it’s supposed to be for Comic Relief, but there isn’t much comic relief in the loss of our dear friend really only just over a year ago."
But the 2003 film wasn’t the end of the story for Thompson and Rickman’s characters. In 2015, Curtis’s longtime partner Emma Freud live tweeted some details of what happened to the couple after the credits rolled. The short version? "They stay together but home isn’t as happy as it once was," according to Freud.