1 February 2012
Automatons have suddenly come back into vogue since the recent release of 'Hugo', Martin Scorsese's beautiful adaptation of Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
Automata are mechanically controlled puppets. They are mechanically driven. Today we might even refer to them as robots, though this is really a term that was only invented in the 1920s. The history of the automaton (the singular of automata) goes back much, much further and can be traced to the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.
Hero of Alexandria, who lived during the first century A.D., was an inventor credited with the creation of many devices including the first vending machine (it dispensed holy water when the buyer dropped in a coin). Hero supposedly created a whole automata theater that gave a performance ten minutes in length. According to accounts, the device was controlled by a series of ropes with knots tied in them. As the rope was pulled through the device, the knots moved levers which caused actions to happen on the miniature stage. By all accounts the history of Automata are tied up with the history of puppetry and share many similar stories. You can find more information at the Museum of UnNatural Mystery here.
CBS News in the United States recently took at look at the reemergence of the Automaton and it's influence from the world of Hugo Cabret. You can view this fascinating report here. Michael Start of The House of Automata, based in Scotland was invited to be the consultant on the film and teach the actors how to work with the automata. You can view a clip of their work here. Another fascinating short clip reveals the making of Hugo, which you can see here.
I would like to acknowledge the Puppet Crit newsletter and my thanks to Hobey Ford's post this morning that started me on this piece of research into the wonderful world of Automata.