Martin Scorsese’s 3-D epic, Hugo, out this month, centers on a broken automaton that a young boy in Paris hopes to repair. That takes place in the 1930s, but we’ve been tinkering with uncanny automatons for centuries. Here’s a look back.
- Robot Throne (10th C. BC)
King Solomon, the original Decider, ruled from a gold robot. A compressed-air system caused flanking mechanical lions to roar on command and birds to put a crown on Solly’s head. The mechs weren’t humanoid, but they were effective. Because, you know: Speak softly and sit on a creepy robot.
- The Coachman (1649)
King Louis XIV had several robots. The most elaborate was a whip-wielding coachman on a miniature carriage drawn by mechanical horses. When it stopped, a female figurine stepped out and curtsied, Mr. Roboto-style.
- Skeleton Guitarist (1664)
The French engineer who built this terror used springs and pulleys to make it move its hands in time with a self-playing guitar placed in its lap. Unfortunately, his audience thought he used sorcery. Both engineer and skeleton were burned at the stake.
- The Writer (c. 1800)
Swiss clockmaker Henri Maillardet’s startlingly lifelike automaton could write complete sentences in both French and English. A version of the automaton shows up in Hugo (above)—with a little more autonomy than the original.