It’s no secret that robots designed to be a part of your home are on the rise, from Kuri the cute little mechanical critter that responds to sound and touch and has “moods” which it reflects through light, to the bot that will carry home your shopping. Dorian Gray, a character in Jane Eyre Gets Real, knows better than anyone how appearances can be deceiving. Though robots seem very modern, sophisticated automatons began to appear before the European public as early as the 1600s.
In the reign of Louis XV, a mechanical bird was created called “Digesting Duck.” Made of copper it could eat, fully digest and even excrete food, as well as flap its wings and quack. At the turn of the 19th century “The Draughtsman-Writer” had a built-in memory, could draw four pictures and write three poems. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, renowned watchmaker and mathematician Jacquet-Droz invented “The Musician”, a little lady who played the organ while her chest rose and fell; she bowed at the end of each performance. Take that, Siri!
Victorians had great fun with the automaton. Mechanical dancers circling inside glass bell jars to the beat of mechanical tunes became popular items to display on the mantelpiece. There were also banks, often with circus themes, which did “tricks”; for instance, set a penny in the trunk of a mechanical elephant and it would deposit it for you. But automatons were not just fun and games. They questioned the nature of life itself. In the 1880s a French author, Auguste Villiers de l’Isle Adam, wrote a novel called The Future Eve, about an English nobleman who falls in love with a beautiful mechanical woman, a forerunner of The Stepford Wives and Her. Incidentally, it was in this book by Adam that the term android was first coined.