A blog for an English class

Stand Alone Automatons.

There have been automata, or legends of them, around since ancient Greek mythology.

Probably the most well-known automata from the Greek mythology are the helpers that Hephaestus, the blacksmith, made. Hephaestus also made several other automatons. This link has descriptions from the poems, and also has some automatons that Daedalus made. The Cabeirian Horses may be my favorite:

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 29. 193 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
“[The Kabeiroi] rode in a car of adamant; a pair of colts beat the dust with rattling hooves of brass, and they sent out a dry whinnying from their throats. These father Hephaistos had made with his inimitable art, breathing defiant fire between their teeth, like the pair of brazenfooted bulls which he made for Aietes the redoubtable ruler of the Kolkhians, with hot collars and burning pole. Eurymedon [one of the Kabeiroi] drove and guided the fiery mouths of the ironfoot steeds with a fiery bridle.”

They just sound awesome. I also found this explanation for how the serving tripods could have worked.

One of the earliest stand alone automatons that’s still around is this mechanical monk.

It has a neat story behind it. Here’s a great little history, but I’ll give the short version. It was commissioned by Philip II, King of Spain who’s son was dying. He prayed that if God would give him a miracle by healing his son, he would give a miracle of his own. His son got better, and this mechanical monk is the king’s miracle.

The Japanese had these karakuri dolls in the 1600’s:

I like them 🙂 They are simple, charming, and they do something semi-useful. I’m happy because I found plans for making them. I may try making one sometime. (I do have to finish other projects first though)

These early automatons were not being made in a vacuum. The idea that a human could take wood, leather, cloth, and metal, and make something alive has fascinated humans probably since the dawn of time. The makers of these machines were tapping into the stories that were told about golems, mechanical helpers, and enchanted household items. People were (and still are) fascinated by automatons because it’s like seeing something out of a story come to life. (In a future post I may poke at why stories like that fascinate people)

So there’s a bit about the simpler automatons. Next I’ll look at the more advanced ones, and maybe look at what some people said about them.


Automatons in Clocks

Most people probably know what a cuckoo clock is either from real life, or from movies. That is just one example of clocks with automatons built into them. The Prague clock in the post before this had statues that would move around and ring bells, and some clocks were much more elaborate.

Here’s a fairly sophisticated cuckoo mechanism. Skip to 0:50 seconds if you just want to see it run.

And here’s an example from the Renaissance.

The mechanisms for clocks like this were usually pretty simple, but they laid the groundwork for sophisticated stand-alone automatons.

We’ll take a look at those next.


Jubal Freeman

Medieval town clocks

Now, let’s take a look at the kinds of clocks that the verge escapement was used in.

Most medieval clocks were town clocks, and many had astronomical faces.

This clock in Prague is a good example.

It was installed in 1410, and still runs today. Wikipedia has a decent overview of the clock, but this site is a bit better I think, even with some translation issues.

Here’s a good animation of how the dial works

You may notice that the dial is very different from clock faces today. That’s because the town clocks were for more then just telling the hour of the day. Astrology was widely accepted at the time, so the astronomical face was used to determine what days were good for various tasks, what sign of the zodiac a baby was born under, and whatever else they could manage to connect to the movements of stars and planets.

The big difference between mechanical clocks and water clocks, sundials, and hourglasses, was how they kept time, not accuracy. Mechanical clocks marked shift from telling time by the position of the sun, or a flow of water and sand, to time measurement based on a periodic event. We still tell time in basically the same way, the only difference is what event is used. Mechanical clocks use an escapement that ‘ticks’ at a uniform speed under a given amount of force, where quartz clocks work off of the vibration frequency of  quartz crystal, but both are doing the same thing.

This change to a method of timekeeping that was ‘external’ instead of based on the sun, or how long ago someone flipped the hourglass, did something, it started to change how people saw time.

Back then, and now in some places, time wasn’t as rigid as we see it now. Instead of ‘noon’ being within 60 seconds of 12 o’clock, it was when the sun was pretty much straight up, and that could give you a range of half an hour or more. One thing the more accurate clocks enabled was another way to figure out productivity. Instead of only being able to figure “I can make x widgets per day” it was possible to figure productivity per hour, and form that we now have jobs that pay by the hour, phone calls we pay for by the minute, and cooking times (in microwaves) measured in seconds.

There were many other changes that clocks had a hand in between the 1400’s and now, but a more detailed look will have to wait for another post.


Jubal Freeman



The Escapement

This is a Verge escapement:

From Wikipedia, from A handbook of applied mechanics By Henry Evers.

It is one of the most important  inventions, and without it we would live in a very different world.

That seems like a lot to say about a little mechanism, so I will explain.

What is it?  It is a device invented in the last half of the 13th century to regulate the release of energy in mechanical clocks. Without an escapement a clock, whether gravity or spring driven, would just spin faster and faster until either it’s weights reached the ground (for a gravity-driven clock) or it’s spring ran out (spring-driven). What the escapement does is let out the energy out in short “ticks” so that the clock runs at a constant speed.

Here’s one running:

Why is it important?  Because it made mechanical clocks possible, and through that enabled more accurate measurement of time, and helped to drive the development of complex mechanisms. Without the accurate measurement of time scientific progress would have been severely hindered, and without the knowledge of machine design gained from clock-making the industrial revolution would not have been possible.

Now this escapement isn’t perfect, most are only accurate to 15 min. per day and it wears out quickly compared to other types, but it was the start, and without this start, we wouldn’t have our modern world and all of it’s technological wonders.


Jubal Freeman


This is the first in a series of posts following the development of mechanical clocks, and the things that came from them, all the way to computers. Along the way I’ll also look at how the technologies impacted  society. There’s more info on the about page.