Before the invention of the electric motors, software, and computers that power today’s toys and robots, there was the age of mechanics where motion was driven by cranks and gears, coding was done with cams and followers, and simple machines created surprisingly complex engines mirroring the processes of life. Automaton, plural automatons or automata, are any of various mechanical objects that are relatively self-operating after they have been set in motion. Clocks and watches that do not run on electricity are examples of automata. 

A Very Brief History of Automata
The following information comes from the SFO Museum 

The history of automata (singular automaton) parallels humanity’s undiminished and continuous quest to create an object that has the appearance of moving like a human or an animal. The word is derived from the Greek automatos, meaning “self-moving.” Attempts to mechanically reproduce the movements of the human body began in ancient Egypt. Statues of certain gods, such as the jackal-headed god, Anubis, were rigged with hinges to mimic human speech and movement–one example is in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Centuries later, the Greeks and Byzantines’ accomplishments in physics and mechanics provided Phylon of Byzantium and Heron of Alexandria with the knowledge to render drawings for the first actual automata. During the Middle Ages, the Arabs were the first to apply the principles of automata construction based on the work of Heron and Phylon. In Western Europe, clockmaking and automata were combined to form grand animated statues, jacquemarts. The jacquemarts rang the cathedral bells to mark the time of day.

Before the Industrial Revolution, automata were created mainly as one-of-a-kind scientific experiments, political or religious theater, and given as diplomatic gifts. Eventually they became promotional devices to attract sales. French manufacturers later incorporated mass-production technology to produce musical automata, musical dolls, clockwork singing birds, and tableaux méchaniques (mechanically animated scenes) to meet the increasing demand for these new forms of entertainment. From the mid-1800s to the 1900s, automata served as parlor entertainment. Many skilled artisans were required to manufacture these clockwork machines. They were not considered toys for children, but rather items of social privilege and status.

The manufacture and production of automata reflect the interests and preoccupations of French society at the turn of the nineteenth century. This included a passion for travel and an interest in exotic, foreign places. Clowns, artists, conjurers, musicians, and dancers represented the public’s fascination and desire for the extraordinary and the unusual. In the first half of the 1800s, mechanical movement clockwork and music box cylinders were perfected and methods of production improved. Automata entertainment expanded beyond the theater and circus into the parlors and living rooms of the middle class.

To learn more about the history of automata and to see lots of examples check out this great video from STEMpunkED

In our next session of Advanced STEM Club on October 29th we will be making our own Micro Automata. To make your own you will need the following materials and we will be following these instructions from the Oakland Discovery Center


  • Wide clean plastic cup or clear solo cup

  • A straw

  • Skewers

  • Bottle caps – 2 or more depending on your design

  • Foam core/foam board or thick cardboard

  • Tape


  • Scissors

  • Hot glue gun (if you do not have a hot glue gun regular glue can be used, you will just have to wait for the pieces to dry until moving on to the next step) 

  • A large screw

  • Phillips screwdriver or pencil