“A Certain Motion”:

Automata and Mechanism in Early Modern Europe


  • Grace Murray


Automation, Descartes, Mechanical, Early Modern, Wonder


This article explores early modern hopes and fears that texts about automata, machines that imitate organic life, could transform the reader from curious layman into a superhuman engineer. Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston’s seminal work, Wonder and the Order of Nature (1150-1750) (1998), argues that displays of automata aim to stimulate emotion, but it does not explore the transformative possibilities for the reader encountering these machines. This article contends that written accounts of automata in early modern Europe reflect growing uncertainty about the relationship between body and mind, which would later be expressed in the mechanical philosophy of René Descartes. This uncertainty is illustrated by literary texts, particularly Thomas Nash’s innovative prose work The Unfortunate Traveller (1594); historical chronicles that recall the inventions of the Spanish clockmaker Juanelo Turriano; and the technical manuals of the automaton-makers themselves. This article argues that the early modern automaton’s potential to change the organic human body is both a threat to contemporary understanding of human nature, and a fantastical hope for humanity’s future evolution.


Primary Sources:
Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. Edited by Nicolas K.
Kiessling, Thomas C. Faulkner, and Rhonda L. Blair. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
Caus, Isaac de. New and rare inventions of water-works. London, 1659. British Library.
Caus, Salomon de. Les raisons des forces mouuantes. Frankfurt, 1615. British Library.
Chapman, George. The whole works of Homer. London, 1616. Early English Books Online. Harvard University Library.
Cottingham, John, ed. René Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Elyot, Thomas. Bibliotheca Eliotae. London, 1542. Early English Books Online. Bodleian Library.
Hero. The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria. Edited and translated by BennetWoodcroft. London: TaylorWalton and Maberly, 1851.
Kramer, Heinrich and James Sprenger. Malleus Maleficarum. Translated by Montague Summers. London: John Rodker, 1928.
Morales, Ambrosio de. Las antigüedades de las ciudades de España. Madrid, 1792. Biblioteca Digital de Castilla y León.
Nash, Thomas. The vnfortunate traveller. London, 1594. Early English Books Online. Huntington Library.

Reference Works:
“crabbed, adj.” The Oxford English Dictionary. Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/43592?rskey=DV6pq6&result=4 (accessed March 14, 2019).

Secondary Sources:
Benedict, Barbara M. Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Butterworth, Philip, and Katie Normington, eds. Medieval Theatre Performance: Actors, Dancers, Automata and Their Audiences. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2017.
Daston, Lorraine, and Katharine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 1998.
Des Chene, Dennis. Spirits and Clocks: Machine and Organism in Descartes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.
Evans, Robert John Weston, and Alexander Marr, eds. Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.
García-Diego, José A. Juanelo Turriano, Charles V’s Clockmaker: The Man and His Legend. Translated by Charles David Ley. Wadhurst: Antiquarian Horological Society, 1986.
Glennan, Stuart, and Phyllis McKay Illari, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Mechanisms and Mechanical Philosophy. Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Gnudi, Martha Teach, and Eugene S. Ferguson, eds. The Various and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976
Hanafi, Zakiya. The Monster in the Machine Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.
Hyman,Wendy Beth, ed. The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.
LaGrandeur, Kevin. Androids and Intelligent Networks in Early Modern Literature and Culture: Artificial Slaves. London: Routledge, 2012.
Lund, Mary Ann. Melancholy, Medicine and Religion in Early Modern England: Reading ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Murphy, Susan. “Heron of Alexandria’s ‘On Automaton-Making’”. History of Technology 17 (1995): 1–46.
Price, Derek J. De Solla. “Automata and the Origins of Mechanism and Mechanistic Philosophy”. Technology and Culture 5, no. 1 (1964): 9-23. doi:10.2307/3101119.
Reilly, Kara. Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Sawday, Jonathan. Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine. Abingdon: Routledge, 2007.
Wolfe, Jessica. Humanism, Machinery, and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Legend to Figures:
Figure 1: Automaton of a friar, 16 in x 5 in x 6 in. 1977.1191. Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Photo reproduced with permission of the National Museum of American History.




How to Cite

Murray, G. (2019). “A Certain Motion”:: Automata and Mechanism in Early Modern Europe. Trinity Postgraduate Review Journal, 18(1), 38–54. Retrieved from https://ojs.tchpc.tcd.ie/index.php/tpr/article/view/1303