Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Have you seen the new Martin Scorsese movie, Hugo? I highly recommend it for multiple reasons - a great story, a love of silent films, wonderful cinematography (in 3D, no less), and the recreation of an automaton. The film is based loosely in real people and events. Georges Melies. the first creator of silent fictional films, is one of the central characters of the film - wonderfully portrayed by Ben Kingsley. The film is set in Paris's Montparnasse train station some time after the end of World War I. Melies is selling toys in a tiny stall in the train station where he meets the film's protagonist, Hugo.

Jacques de Vaucanson
Automata are what today we would call robots. They were an attempt by their builders to render a life-like creature from machine parts. The history of automata goes back millenia. Even Leonardo da Vinci drew designs for automata and built at least one in the shape of a lion. Various builders followed with increasingly sophisticated automata. One of the earliest masters was Jacques de Vaucanson who exhibited in 1738 the mechanical figure of a flute player which could actually play this difficult instrument through subtle recreations of the lips, palate, and facial muscles (not to mention the fingering of the keys). This automaton was a smash hit and other builders followed with their own mechanical recreations of life.  Much later, as we shall see, Georges Melies became fascinated with automata.

Georges Melies
Georges Melies was born in France in 1884 and trained to become a shoe maker, like his father. But while training in London, he became enthralled by the magic he saw performed in the Egyptian Hall.  When he returned to France he worked in his father's business until his father died. At that point, he sold his share of the business to his two brothers and used the money to buy the dilapidated Parisian theater of magician, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin (from whom Houdini took his stage name).

Robert-Houdin started life apprenticing as a watchmaker but was always fascinated by magic. While working in the Loire valley, he became seriously ill and was nursed back to life by a magician named Torrini. Torrini, it turns out, had several automata that he used in his magic shows. The automata were badly in need of repairs and Robert-Houdin used his mechanical skills to bring them back to working condition. He also immediately saw the link between magic and the seemingly life-like power of these mechanical androids.

Robert-Houdin went back to Paris and began his work building clocks, astronomical instruments, and automata.  In 1844, he won a medal at the Paris Exposition for his writing automaton.  Robert-Houdin now started to devote all his energy to automata. His 1844 model was enhanced to where it could perfectly recreate Robert-Houdin's signature. Ironically, P.T. Barnum bought the automaton while on a tour of Europe with Tom Thumb. The automaton was exhibited in England and then sent back to America where it was displayed in Barnum's museum of oddities. It was eventually destroyed in a museum fire.

Robert-Houdin had opened a magic theater in Paris during this time period. He died in 1871 and his sons managed his theater for 17 years until one of the son's widows sold it to George Melies.  The theater came with all of the props including Robert-Houdin's remaining automata.  Melies immediately repaired the theater and the automata.  The movie would have us think that the writing automaton was still in Paris but this was not the case as mentioned before.

Soon after, Melies became fascinated with photography and moving pictures when he saw the early work of the Lumieres brothers.  He tried to buy one of their cameras and when they turned him down, he went on to build his own. Melies started making his own films and by 1897, the magic theater was mostly a movie theater. Below is his 1902 classic, A Trip to the Moon.

In the film, Hugo, the boy, must repair the writing automaton to try to retrieve a message he felt that his dead father had left encrypted in the automaton. When he finally did get the machine repaired, it drew pictures which lead Hugo to the secret past of Georges Melies, who had long ago  fallen out of favor as a film maker and was now a toy seller in the train station (Melies did, indeed, fall out of favor as a film maker and ended his working years selling toys from a tiny stall in Montparnasse Station).

In the film, the automaton is meant to cast a mysterious grip on us. But that's nothing new. Automata have always delighted and confounded people with a mechanical imitation of life.  We still find robots fascinating. The word "robot", by the way, comes from a 1921 play by Karel Capek entitled, Rossum's Universal Robots.  Today, robots are literally part of our everyday life - whether it is the GPS navigation system in our car or the Scooba that scrubs our floors. But we still want to instill life and personality into these machines (Disclosure: we have named our GPS systems in our cars Jeeves and Prudence and talk to them regularly).  Robots populate our films and stories (who can forget HAL in 2001?). Robots might seem like our future.

Maybe someday these machines will become so sophisticated we might not be able to tell them apart from human beings. Personally, I doubt that it will happen. Even if we could create such creatures, our sensibilities would demand some form of visual recognition that tells us that this creature is not human. We are fascinated by machine life but we are very wary of losing the boundaries of our own humanity.  Robots will become ubiquitous but not invisible.  The line between man and machine is not easily transgressed.

[For a much more in depth treatment of automata, mechanical life, and Georges Melies,  I would recommend Gaby Woods 2002 book entitled (in the U.S.), Edison's Eve, and in Britain, Living Dolls.}

1 comment:

Wendy Hyman said...

A delightful post! Thanks for this. My father, Bruce Hyman, pointed me to your blog. I adored Hugo too, and it inspired me to purchase the complete collection of Melies' films, which we are avidly working through. I recently edited a collection of essays on automatons that might interest you: The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature. (

Do you know about the Jacquet Droz automatons now in Neuchatel? I'm going to see them in September: very excited!

Best regards.