Mention cuckoo clock and our mind immediately goes to a wall clock with a small door through which a little bird pops out on the hour and says cuckoo. This clockwork movement consists of a precise array of gears and trip hammers. We see this in action in wind-up toys and music boxes too. My first real exposure to clockwork gadgets outside of toys and cuckoo clocks, came from a trip to a Wisconsin tourist attraction many years ago. It’s called The House on the Rock and has to be one of the creepiest collections in the world. I mean, who collects a room full of steam boilers and covers a ceiling with dead-eyed mannequins wearing angel wings? And these are just the tip of the iceberg. The place is filled with vintage live-action mannequins — creepy, follow-you-with-their-eyes, automatons.
What are automatons? To put it simply, they’re clockwork mechanisms like cuckoo clocks, but more. Like music boxes, these fanciful and intricate machines are built with wheels and cogs and generally wind up with a key or with weights. Once wound, they will continue to animate their gears, trip hammers, and other articulated components until their inner springs fully unwind. I should add that the word automaton means to act under one’s own will. And now House on the Rock is even creepier…
Throughout history, imaginative inventors devised all manner of animated creations. In my research I’ve come across many different kinds and from simple to complex. Some are adorable and others are nightmares in the making. The ancient world knew such mechanical devices too. Automatons have a long history and even older mythology. In Judaism the Golem was an automaton made of stone and mud. In Ancient Greece, smithy to the gods Hephaestus built Talos — a mechanical man of bronze who patrolled the island of Crete. And who hasn’t heard of the wooden boy Pinocchio and The Wizard of Oz’ tin man? I came across this interesting reference taken from Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. Sometime during the Zhou Dynasty (around 1000BCE), Yan Shi, a mechanical engineer aka artificer presented King Mu with a life-size human automaton.
“The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time… As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yan Shi executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, adhesive and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial… The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted.”
Fun to watch, but still, I wouldn’t want to be locked in with them overnight. lol
There was a time when cards and letters exclusively told friends and family you cared. Vintage holiday postcards and greeting cards were often beautifully done things. That and the sentiment behind them were the reason so many were kept as keepsakes. From now until January, I’ll share vintage holiday postcards for you to enjoy.
Scroll down to see previous vintage postcards and learn how postcards became popular greetings to send, what is cost to send them, and about the big changes made after WWI.
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