Living Machines: Automata Between Nature and Artifice

Article by Laura Tradii
University of Oxford,
MSc History of Science, Medicine and Technology

In a rather unknown operetta morale, the great Leopardi imagines an award competition organised by the fictitious Academy of Syllographers. Being the 19th Century the “Age of Machines”, and despairing of the possibility of improving mankind, the Academy will reward the inventors of three automata, described in a paroxysm of bitter irony: the first will have to be a machine able to act like a trusted friend, ready to assist his acquaintances in the moment of need, and refraining from speaking behind their back; the second machine will be a “steam-powered artificial man” programmed to accomplish virtuous deeds, while the third will be a faithful woman. Considering the great variety of automata built in his century, Leopardi points out, such achievements should not be considered impossible.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, automata (from the Greek, “self moving” or “acting of itself”) had become a real craze in Europe, above all in aristocratic circles. Already a few centuries earlier, hydraulic automata had often been installed in the gardens of palaces to amuse the visitors. Jessica Riskin, author of several works on automata and their history, describes thus the machines which could be found, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, in the French castle of Hesdin:

“3 personnages that spout water and wet people at will”; a “machine for wetting ladies when they step on it”; an “engien [sic] which, when its knobs are touched, strikes in the face those who are underneath and covers them with black or white [flour or coal dust]”.1



In the fifteenth century, always according to Riskin, Boxley Abbey in Kent displayed a mechanical Jesus which could be moved by pulling some strings. The Jesus muttered, blinked, moved his hands and feet, nodded, and he could smile and frown. In this period, the fact that automata required a human to operate them, instead of moving of their own accord as suggested by the etymology, was not seen as cheating, but rather as a necessity.2

In the eighteenth century, instead, mechanics and engineers attempted to create automata which could move of their own accord once loaded, and this change could be contextualised in a time in which mechanistic theories of nature had been put forward. According to such theories, nature could be understood in fundamentally mechanical terms, like a great clockwork whose dynamics and processes were not much different from the ones of a machine. According to Descartes, for example, a single mechanical philosophy could explain the actions of both living beings and natural phenomena.3
Inventors attempted therefore to understand and artificially recreate the movements of animals and human beings, and the mechanical duck built by Vaucanson is a perfect example of such attempts.

With this automaton, Vaucanson purposed to replicate the physical process of digestion: the duck would eat seeds, digest them, and defecate. In truth, the automaton simply simulated these processes, and the faeces were prepared in advance. The silver swan built by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), instead, imitated with an astonishing realism the movements of the animal, which moved (and still moves) his neck with surprising flexibility. Through thin glass tubes, Merlin even managed to recreate the reflection of the water on which the swan seemed to float.

Vaucanson’s Flute Player, instead, played a real flute, blowing air into the instruments thanks to mechanical lungs, and moving his fingers. On a similar vein, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a little model of Napoleon was displayed in the United Kingdom: the puppet breathed, and it was covered in a material which imitated the texture of skin.  The advertisement for its exhibition at the Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak’.4

The attempt to artificially recreate natural processes included other functions beyond movement. In 1779, the Academy of Sciences of Saint Petersburg opened a competition to mechanise the most human of all faculties, language, rewarding who would have succeeded in building a machine capable of pronouncing vowels. A decade later, Kempelen, the inventor of the famous Chess-Playing Turk, built a machine which could pronounce 19 consonants (at least according to Kempelen himself).5

In virtue of their uncanny nature, automata embody the tension between artifice and nature which for centuries has animated Western thought. The quest not only for the manipulation, but for the perfecting of the natural order, typical of the Wunderkammer or the alchemical laboratory, finds expression in the automaton, and it is this presumption that Leopardi comments with sarcasm. For Leopardi, like for some of his contemporaries, the idea that human beings could enhance what Nature already created perfect is a pernicious misconception. The traditional narrative of progress, according to which the lives of humans can be improved through technology, which separates mankind from the cruel state of nature, is challenged by Leopardi through his satire of automata. With his proverbial optimism, the author believes that all that distances humans from Nature can only be the cause of suffering, and that no improvement in the human condition shall be achieved through mechanisation and modernisation.

This criticism is substantiated by the fear that humans may become victims of their own creation, a discourse which was widespread during the Industrial Revolution. Romantic writer Jean Paul (1763-1825), for example, uses automata to satirise the society of the late eighteenth century, imagining a dystopic world in which machines are used to control the citizens and to carry out even the most trivial tasks: to chew food, to play music, and even to pray.6

The mechanical metaphors which were often used in the seventeenth century to describe the functioning of the State, conceptualised as a machine formed of different cogs or institutions, acquire here a dystopic connotation, becoming the manifestation of a bureaucratic, mechanical, and therefore dehumanising order. It is interesting to see how observations of this kind recur today in debates over Artificial Intelligence, and how, quoting Leopardi, a future is envisioned in which “the uses of machines [will come to] include not only material things, but also spiritual ones”.

A closer future than we may think, since technology modifies in entirely new directions our way of life, our understanding of ourselves, and our position in the natural order.


[1]  Jessica Riskin, Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence.
[2]  Grafton, The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine, p.56.
[3]  Grafton, p.58.
[4]  Jennifer Walls, Captivating Respiration: the “Breathing Napoleon”.
[5]  John P. Cater, Electronically Speaking: Computer Speech Generation, Howard M. Sams & Co., 1983, pp. 72-74.
[6]  Jean Paul, 1789. Discusso in Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination di Minsoo Kang.

Beastial sports: the game, the blood, the cruelty

famoso Orson Welles con ordonez

Orson Welles, as is well known, changed the history of cinema at only 26 years of age with the unparalleled Fourth Power, a film that already in 1941 showed an unexpectedly modern and complex language. Welles was also an excellent magician and illusionist, but what few people know is that in his youth the multifaceted artist and intellectual had cherished the dream of becoming a bullfighter. His passion for bullfighting gradually waned over the years as Welles saw the sensationalistic and folkloric aspect of bullfighting take precedence over its symbolic meaning-in his words, the sacrifice of the“brave beast” meeting a“brave man” in a ritual battle.“I hate everything that is folkloric. But I don’t resent bullfighting because it needs all those Japanese people in the front row to continue to exist (and it really does); rather, the same thing happened to me as my father, who was a great hunter and suddenly stopped hunting, because he said: I killed too many animals, and now I’m ashamed of myself.” In the same wonderful interview with Michael Parkinson, Welles called bullfighting“indefensible and irresistible” at the same time.

Irresistible. Any violent confrontation between man and animal, or animal and animal, inevitably draws our gaze. It may be a primitive call that brings us back in touch with the ancient fear of becoming prey; but raise your hand if you have not been, at least as a child, entranced by television images of male lions fighting for the privilege over the female, or deer scoring for territory. Fighting, violence are an integral part of nature, and they still exert a powerful and ancestral fascination on us.

This is probably the impetus behind a type of “show” (if you can call it that), already ethically opposed in the 1800s, and now almost universally condemned for its cruelty: these are the so-called bloodsports, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “any sport that involves killing or injuring animals for the excitement of spectators or people taking part.” Cockfighting, dogfighting, bullfighting, bearfighting, ratfighting, badgerfighting: the imagination has never had any boundaries when it comes to pushing two animals into a duel for the mere sake of entertainment. In this article we will review some of the more bizarre bloodsport-and you will probably find it hard to believe that some of these forms of “entertainment” exist, or existed, for real.


Goose shooting is still practiced today in some regions of Belgium, Holland, and Germany, but they use an already dead goose, killed by “humane methods” by a veterinarian. This was not the case at the beginning of the tradition: the goose, still alive, was tied by the legs to a board or suspended rope; the animal’s head and neck were carefully smeared with grease or soap. The contestants, in turn, had to ride under the pole and try to grab the goose’s slippery head. The hero of the day was whoever managed to take the bird’s head off, and often the prize for winning was simply the goose itself. It might have seemed a simple feat, but it was not at all, as a passage by William G. Simms testifies:

Only the experienced horseman, and the experienced sportsman, can be assured of success. Young beginners, who consider the feat quite easy, are constantly discouraged; many find that it is impossible for them to pass in the right place; many are pulled out of the saddle, and even when they have succeeded in passing under the tree without disaster, they fail to catch the goose, which keeps fluttering and screaming; or, they fail, going at a gallop, to keep their grip on the slippery neck like an eel and on the head they have caught.




Originating in the 17th century in Holland, the sport also spread to England and North America and, despite being criticized by many influential voices of the time, endured overseas until the late 1800s. A slightly different but equally ancient version is held annually in Switzerland, in Sursee, during a festival called Gansabhauet: competitors wear a mask representing the face of the Sun and a red tunic; the mask prevents them from seeing anything, and the participants, proceeding blindly, must succeed in decapitating a goose (already dead) hanging from a rope, using a sword from which, to increase the difficulty, the string has been removed.






Another wacky sport saw the light of day instead in more recent times, during the 1960s. This wasoctopus wrestling: without tanks or snorkels of any kind, competitors had to manage to grab a giant octopus with their bare hands and bring it back to the surface. The weight of the octopus determined the winner. The animal was later cooked, donated to the local aquarium or released back into the wild.



In the early 1960s a World Championship of octopus wrestling was held annually, attracting thousands of people, so much so that it was even filmed on television; in the 1963 edition a total of 25 giant Pacific octopuses were caught, the largest of which weighed nearly 26 kilograms. The gold medal was won by Scotsman Alexander Williams, who caught as many as three animals.

trail of the octopus

In Japan, the small town of Kajiki holds the traditional Kumo Gassen festival each year, which is the most famous spider fighting event. Practiced somewhat throughout Southeast Asia, this discipline involves the use of black and yellow striped argiopi. Lovingly raised as if they were puppies, the spiders are free to roam around the house, to walk on their masters’ faces and bodies, and to build their webs as they please-the price to pay for this freedom is hard wrestling training. To be fair, these arachnids are not particularly aggressive by nature, and even during combat, which takes place by means of a stick on which the spiders clash, it is rare for them to be brutally injured. In any case, a referee is present to separate them should things get too violent.



Kumo Gassen



If Kumo Gassen is ultimately not a particularly bloody sport compared to others, let us instead conclude with what is perhaps the most chilling of all: fuchsprellen, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Imagine the scene. In an enclosed arena (the courtyard of a castle, or a specially demarcated space) the pairs of participants in the game would gather. Nobles with their consorts, high dignitaries, and scions of great houses. Each pair often consisted of husband and wife, so as to increase the competitiveness of the contestants. Six or seven meters apart, both held the end of a net or a set of ropes resting on the ground: this was their slingshot. Suddenly, a fox was released into the yard: frightened, it ran here and there until it ran over the sling of one of the pairs. At that exact moment, the two competitors had to pull the ends of the net with all their strength, to throw the animal as high as possible.





In the fox-throwing championship held by Augustus II of Poland, it was not only these beautiful animals that were shot into the air: a total of 647 foxes, 533 hares, 34 badgers and 21 wild cats were slingshot. The king himself participated in the games, and demonstrated (reportedly) his strength by holding the net with one finger, while two of the more muscular courtiers stood at the other end. Every now and then some new variation was also tried: in 1648 34 wild boars were released into the enclosure“to the great delight of the knights, but causing the terror of the noblewomen, among whose skirts the boars created great havoc, to the endless hilarity of the illustrious company assembled there.” Three wolves were tried in the same championship. Leopold I of Habsburg, on the other hand, joyfully joined the court dwarfs in finishing off the animals as soon as they landed, so much so that one ambassador noted his surprise at seeing the Holy Roman Emperor accompanying himself with that clique of“tiny boys, and idiots.”

Indefensible, but certainly not irresistible.

(Thanks, Gianluca!)