Sunday, 20 December 2015

Automata - Machineries of Weirdness

Mechanical devices designed to mimic human beings or animals. It's an odd way to carry on, really, investing huge amounts of wealth and expertise in something that is seemingly useless, yet manages to be fascinating. Weird fiction has plenty of examples of strange automata - Poe wrote an expose of 'Maelzel's Chess Player', the famous Turk, Ambrose Bierce created 'Moxon's Master', and there's also Marjorie Lawrence's wonderful life-size dancer, 'Vlasto's Doll'. But in real life these clockwork simulacra can be every bit as strange as those found in fiction.

The first one I saw was at Bowes Museum, at Barnard Castle in County Durham, just a few miles from my home. It's the rather lovely silver swan - not really spooky, though certainly the stuff of fantasy. One can imagine a king or caliph in a fairy tale receiving this as a gift.



Only a very spoiled potentate would not be impressed, I feel. Now we move on to something a bit stranger. This is an extract from a TV show.



That is the sort of machine nobody in a spooky tale should be left alone with. Not for a minute. And extra points for posh, creepy voice over.





No discussion of clockwork creations would be complete without a tiny dancer. This is the sort of thing a penniless student in a weird tale often becomes obsessed with after finding her in a junk shop or whatever. Someone listening outside the door hears him talking to her, as if she were a real woman. He neglects his studies, grows pale and distracted, until eventually...



Finally, a nice example of a deliberately spooky automaton, designed to reproduce that classic of the Victorian stage, Doctor Pepper's Ghost.








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