An automaton is a self-operating (toy) machine. The word is sometimes used to describe a robot, more specifically an autonomous robot. An alternative spelling -now obsolete- is automation.

The automata in the Hellenistic world were intended as toys, religious idols to impress worshipers, or tools for demonstrating basic scientific principles, including those built by Hero of Alexandria (sometimes known as Heron). When his writings on hydraulics, pneumatics, and mechanics were translated into Latin in the sixteenth century, Hero's readers initiated reconstruction of his machines, which included siphons, a fire engine, a water organ, the aeolipile and a programmable cart.

automaton toy antique

Famous Automata inventors

1709-1782 Jacques de Vaucanson produced some of the most famous historical automata and is regarded by many as one of the greatest automata makers of all time. His most famous automaton called The Duck was and artificial duck made of gilded copper which drank, eat, quacked, splashed about in water and digested its food like a living duck. Vancanson also made flute and tabor players. The flute player was 5ft 10in tall (1.8m) and stood on a pedestal. A current of air led through the complex mechanism causing the lips and fingers of the player to move naturally on the flute. Opening and closing holes on the instrument. It had a repertoire of twelve tunes. People could not believe that the sounds of the flute were made by the automaton, instead thinking that bellows or some other devise was making the sound. Spectators were invited to see the mechanism and internal details. They could also feel the breath coming from the lips of the flute player and see the fingers determining the notes.

1721-1790: Pierre Jaquet-Doz was a brilliant mathametition who was specialized in applied mechanics and horology. With the help of his son and adopted son he produced three automata which even today are considered wonders of science and mechanical engineering.

automaton french

The Writer, The drauftsman and The Musician still exist and are in the museum of Art and History in Switzerland. The writer can be programed to write up to 40 letters dipping his pen into the ink and writing each letter clearly, he even dots the i and crosses the t. The Draughtsman can draw four pictures and even blows the graphite of the page. The Musician plays an organ, depressing the keys of her instrument with her fingers whilst moving the upper part of her body in a life like manner and bows at the end of the performance.

1792: Tipoo's Tiger was made by the son of Sultan. Tipu's enemy was savaged by his favorite creature, the tiger. This automaton is made of wood and contains a miniature organ. The movement is limited to the movement of the soldiers arm whilst the tiger growls.

1800-1850: Joseph Faber took 25 years to make his famous automaton Euphonia. The automata produced sounds similar to the human voice. It started by reciting the letters of the alphabet and then said "How do you do ladies and gentlemen". It asked and answered questions, whisper, sang and laughed. The mechanisms could be inspected. It even spoke in an German accent as it talked in English but was made by a German speaking Austrian. Every one that inspected the mechanism was satisfied that the automaton made the sounds and not a ventriloquist.

1893: George Moore made a steam powered man that worked from a gas-fired boiler. It reached a walking speed of 9 miles an hour.

A lot of interesting automata were made and perfected in the 19th century. It was a prolific and golden era for automata. It was also a time when mass production techniques meant that automata could be made cheaply and easily and it is around this time that we see the automata becoming more of a child's toy rather than an expensive adult pallor amusement. It is from this time on that mechanical toys took over and although they were to survive well into the 20th century it is sadly now a thing of the past. Modern expectations of children and safety registration have lead to the demise of the clock work tin toy.


Updated: 8 December 2021

Automaton value and price guide

What's your Automaton worth in 2021? Here are some recently sold items.

Item Title Date Price
french musical automaton banjo player by leopold French Musical Automaton Banjo Player By Leopold 09/2021 £3 317.97
french musical automaton banjo player by leopold French Musical Automaton Banjo Player By Leopold 10/2021 £3 170.51
christmas kalliope tree stand fruit dish music box Christmas Kalliope Tree Stand Fruit Dish Music Box 11/2021 £2 764.98
singing bird music box tabatiere automaton Singing Bird Music Box Tabatiere Automaton 09/2021 £2 727.37
roullet et decamps automaton 19th century toy dogs pair Roullet Et Decamps Automaton 19th Century Toy Dogs Pair 10/2021 £1 877.00
no pictureSee all sold items on eBay for more prices12/2021£-.--

Automaton forum

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1 comment
Diana - October 26, 2014
Hi, A long time ago, i bought a book on automata. It was a large hardback,oversized and cost 100.$ It was stolen. I would like to find another copy
Do you remember the exact title? There are some books on Automata on Amazon. Click here for a list.