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Before Digital: The World’s Most Amazing Windup Toys

Before electronics, there was mechanics — and it’s amazing what human ingenuity can do with a simple windup mechanism

Windup toys were what we had before we had electricity and robotics. Some very elaborate ones were designed by clockmakers, starting in the late sixteenth century. Most of these clever clockworks, if they survived at all, survive only as faithful replicas. In order of approximate dates, here are some that did — remarkable testimonies to human skill, artistry, and cleverness:

1560s: One of the earliest is a mechanical monk:

“The lore surrounding the monk is that King Philip II, son of Charles V, commissioned [clockmaker Juanelo] Turriano to create the penitent automaton after Philip’s son had recovered from a deathly illness. The king of Spain had prayed for his son’s recovery, promising a miracle for a miracle, and this machine of prayer was meant to be his earthly miracle.” (Lauren Davis, Gizmodo, 2012)

A view of the back shows part of the mechanism. The clothes are 1970s replicas.

From Augsburg around 1600–1625: A clockwork elephant with human figures:

“Automatons were the playthings of the rich and famous. This elephant clock exemplifies the genre. It was made in Augsburg, Germany, and would have been placed in the center of a banquet table where, unbeknownst to the guests, it would come alive when the hour struck, undoubtedly startling a few but amusing all.” (Automaton Clock in the form of an Elephant, 1600-1610, Digital Antiques Journal, 2020)

18th century: The automatons were made by eighteenth-century Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–1790) produced many fine watches but he is remembered today for his workshop’s “humanoid automata” or robots, the Draftsman, the Musician, and the Writer, produced between 1769 and 1774. Presented in fashionable venues throughout Europe, they were distinguished by the miniaturization and complexity of their internal mechanisms, which enabled remarkable versatility” (Mind Matters News, April 22, 2019):

Here’s the “Miraculous Writing Machine” from 1769, presented to Maria Theresa (yes, her again) by court machinist Friedrich von Knaus:

During roughly the same period (1603–1868, the Edo period), Japanese artisans were also building remarkable automatons (karakuri) using clockwork originally acquired from Europe:

There is a curious relationship between early automata and the development of the computer, starting with the Mechanical Turk:

The Mechanical Turk (1770) was a chess-playing robot built by Wilhelm Von Kempelin, originally to entertain Archduchess Maria Theresa. But after her death, he took it on the road, with some interesting results:

“In 1783, an autonomous machine beat Benjamin Franklin in a game of chess. Well, at least that’s what he was led to believe.

Franklin’s opponent was a life-size, humanlike figure seated at a large wooden cabinet, supposedly rigged with machinery that made it capable of playing a game of chess without human support. It was known as the Turk.”

Jennifer Walter, “The Mechanical Turk: How a Chess-playing Hoax Inspired Real Computers,” Discover Magazine, July 5, 2019

Another person who was interested was computer pioneer Charles Babbage (1791–1871), who first saw the Turk in 1819. A few years later, he began working on his “Difference Engine,” one of the earliest attempts at a computer.

The Truk’s chess moves, of course, were actually determined by a succession of hidden human players. but the brilliance of the mechanism fooled many for eight decades until the hoax was revealed. The Turk was destroyed by fire in 1854 (modern exhibits are replicas).

This 1927 silent film, The Chess Player, attempts to recreate the mystery:

Today’s chess-playing computers rely on the power to compute millions of possible moves in seconds, according to a program. See “Are computers that win at chess smarter than geniuses?

Note: Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program takes its name from this automaton because it uses people where one might have expected robots.

Here are a number of other awesome automatons of the period:

and lastly, here’s a modern one from about 1920, The Mechanical Salesman:

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Before Digital: The World’s Most Amazing Windup Toys