Brain Pickings

A Brief Visual History of Robots in a Matrix of Creepiness & Intelligence

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What Louis XV has to do with H.G. Wells and the hazards of mechanical animation.

Ed.: The lovely and talented Michelle Legro is an associate editor of the history and ideas magazine Lapham’s Quarterly. In her inaugural piece for Brain Pickings, she offers an exclusive snippet of LQ’s forthcoming Fall issue, which explores the future, comes out on September 15, and is an absolute treat of curiosity and fascination — get your hands on it by subscribing today. It’ll be your finest gift to yourself in a long while, we promise.

Talos, the automaton forged for King Minos to protect his kingdom from pirates and invaders, may have been the first robot in recorded literature — made of metal, its veins flowed with ichor, the divine blood of the gods. The Golem of Prague was brought to life to protect the city’s Jews, but it was rendered lifeless when it threatened innocent lives. These proto-robots provided an assurance that one day in the future, statues would move—whether they would protect us or rise against us, it was hard to tell.

“The Future” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly collects more than eight-thousand centuries of forward-looking thought, thanks to the inclusion of both Aeschylus Cassandra and H.G Wells‘ time traveler. Also from the issue, this matrix of historical robots organized by their relative intelligence and creepiness.

You’ll also find two automatons from eighteenth century Europe: the Digesting Duck, which ate and then defecated its meal, and the Chess-Playing Turk, which once played a game with Napoleon. These mechanical parlor tricks captivated court life and inspired writers with uncanny nightmares of moving statues. (Think of the mechanical beauty Olympia from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s early-nineteenth-century horror story “The Sandman.”)

One robot unfortunately not included on the matrix was Louis XV‘s special likeness of his mistress Madame du Barry by wax sculptor Philippe Curtius, better known as the teacher of young Marie Grosholtz, later Madame Tussaud. The wax figure is the oldest in the collection of Tussaud’s London museum, surviving both the French Revolution and a devastating 1925 fire. Laid out on a divan, du Barry appears in the throes of a ravishing dream, her eyes are closed but her chest heaves up and down thanks to a mechanical engine devised by Curtius.

This simple device imparted a serene animation to the lifelike wax, an impression not lost on Louis’s courtiers, who called the sculpture “The Sleeping Beauty.” While her wax-figure has slept quietly for over three hundred years, du Barry herself came to a less quiet end. After her banishment from the court of her lover’s grandson Louis XVI, she was captured by the Jacobins and dragged kicking and screaming to the guillotine.

For a complete history of robots, automatons, and moving statues there is no better book than Gaby Wood’s Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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