“A Certain Motion”:
Automata and Mechanism in Early Modern Europe
Keywords: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.
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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.