A nineteenth-century artistic rendition of an automaton baby doll. [3]
In science, automaton (TR:86) is an animated figurine, typically of human or animal replica, made of mechanical or man-made electrochemical parts.

Related terms and or synonyms include: android, human machine, human motor, and or robot.

The origin of the first automaton is difficult to pin down, but they seem to have been first built by the Greeks.

In c.60AD, Hero, a Greek engineer, built a three-wheeled cart that could carry a group of automata to the front of a stage where they would perform for an audience. Power came from a falling weight that pulled on string wrapped round the cart's drive axle, a sort of string-based control mechanism; the following is one of his automata: [5]

Hero automaton

In c.1200, Al-Jazari (1136-1206) (Ѻ), a middle eastern polymath, in his Book of Knowledge of Engineering Tricks, depicted a water clock with automated figurines: [7]

In 1540, Gianello Torriano, a Italian inventor, produced a number of automata, including a human-sized, lute-playing female.

In 1598, Tommaso Francini and Alessandro Francini, Florentine hydraulics engineering brothers, built a number of water-driven automata, in garden terraces at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, that turned around, played music, and even one where a hero slayed a rising dragon. (Ѻ)

In 1644, Isaac de Caus, a French engineer, created a montage scene of a mechanical owl stalking a group of smaller birds.

In 1738, Jacques Vaucanson, a French inventor, famously made a flute player, a tambourine player, and digesting duck automaton; as shown below: [7]

Vaucanson demonstrates his automata

In 1760, Friedrich von Knauss, an Austrian inventor, supposedly, created a mechanical doll that could write up to 107 different words via dictation. [6]

In 1774, Jaquet Droz (1721-1790) (Ѻ), a French watchmaker, built three automata, including: “The Writer” (made of 6,000-pieces), “The Musician” (Ѻ) (made of 2,500-pieces), and “The Draughtsman” (made of 2,000-pieces).


The Draughtsman (Ѻ), shown above, is capable of drawing four different images: a portrait of Louis XV, a royal couple (believed to be Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI), a dog with "Mon toutou" ("my doggy") written beside it, and a scene of Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly.

The Steam Concert
'The Steam Concert', caricature of modern music from 'Un Autre Monde' (1844). [7]
In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes, in his Discourse on Method, set out to construct his own scientific system by studying himself and the world about him. One question Descartes posed to answer was if it was possible to construct a human replica, automaton (mechanical human) so that an external observer would not be able to tell the difference between the real emotional human and the purely mechanical version.

In this direction, Descartes reasoned that if one, schooled in the study of mechanics, constructed a human automaton which ‘walked, ate, breathed and, in a word imitated as much as possible all the other actions of (humans), including even the signs we use to express our passions, such as crying when struck, fleeing when a loud noise is made nearby, etc.’ that another person ‘would find it difficult to distinguish between real human beings and those who only had the same shape’.

As a rule of thumb, according to Descartes, there would be only two ways to distinguish the real human from the mechanical ones. Firstly, an automaton could never ‘arrange words in different ways to reply to the meaning of everything that is said in its presence’. Second, an automaton would never be able to ‘act on the basis of knowledge, but merely as a disposition of their organs.’ In short, an automaton could not react the way real humans could. [1]

Neumann's free energy automaton theory
See main: Neumann automaton theory
In 1948, American chemical engineer John Neumann famously put forward his thermodynamic-based electrical-chemical automaton theory, in which he envisaged a robot or automaton, made of wires, electrical motors, batteries, etc., constructed in such a way that when floating on a lake stoked with component parts, it will reproduce itself (self-replicate), albeit one that could be made to work only if a source of free energy is available. [2]

In 1964, American physicist Jerome Rothstein set out to answer questions on free will and determinism, origin and fate of the universe, and causes and purposes in nature via thermodynamics, specifically modeling people as automatons or well-informed heat engines, where he concludes that some of these admit answers, whereas others admit violations answers that entail violations of the second law. [4]

The following are related quotes:

“I am an automaton endowed with power of movement, which merely responds to external stimuli beating upon my sense organs.”
Nikola Tesla (1900), “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy”

See also
Animate engine
Animate matter
Animate molecule
Animate thermodynamics

1. (a) Descartes, Rene. (1637). Discourse on Method (pgs. 70-73). Penguin Classics, 2003.
(b) Thims, Libb. (2008). The Human Molecule (issuu) (preview) (Google Books) (docstoc) (automaton, pgs. 2-3). LuLu.
2. (a) Neumann, John von. (1963). "Probabilistic Logic and the Synthesis of Reliable Organisms from Unreliable Components", in Collected Works (A. Taub editor), Vol. 5, pgs. 341-47. MacMillian, New York.
(b) Neumann, John von. (1966). Theory of Self-Replicating Automata, A. Burks, ed. University of Illinois Press.
(c) Avery, John. (2003). Information Theory and Evolution (automaton, pg. 89 and ch. 8). London: World Scientific.
3. Wegner, Daniel M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will (pg. 151). MIT Press.
4. Rothstein, Jerome. (1964). “Thermodynamics and Some Undecidable Physical Questions”, Philosophy of Science, 31: 40-48.
5. Lahanas, Michael. (c.2010). “Heron of Alexandra”,
6. Ferguson, Anthony. (2010). The Sex Doll: A History (§: Psychological Impact of Automatons, pgs. 72-75). McFarland.
7. Robots –

Further reading
● Huxley, Thomas. (1874). “On the Hypothesis of Animals as Automata, and its History”, in Method and Results. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968.
● Ball, Philip. (2011). Unnatural: the Heretical Idea of Making People (ch. 2: Descartes' Daughter, pgs. 123-45). Vintage Books.

External links
Automaton – Wikipedia.

TDics icon ns