Creepy Swiss Automatons

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"Creepy Swiss Automatons." BBC-TV, 5 September 1963, repeated BBC Archive, as of September 2023, available here.[1] 6 minutes, 3 seconds.

What looks like a kinescope[2] recording of a BBC episode, subtitled in English. Automatons apparently by Jaquet-Droz (5:18 into episode).

OnThisDay 1963: Alan Whicker reported for Tonight on three 18th century Swiss automatons, two ‘brothers’ and a ‘sister’ who drew, played piano and wrote with a quill. Alan was delighted and enamoured by their precision mechanics and period details, but they now haunt our dreams.

Begins with a hand sketching, quite well, a human head; then a standing presenter, Alan Whicker, identifies the hand, and the body of which it is a part: "He's one of a remarkable trio of automatons. Built in the 18th century, long before electronics, or transistors, before batteries, even before electricity [sic]." Limiting our awe of the Golden Age of Television and the real glories of the BBC: electricity is a force in nature, and Benjamin Franklin used the term "battery" and had the concept in 1749, with the first true battery developed in 1800, not that long after these automata.[3]

Whicker tells us that in "a field of pure applied [also sic] mechanics, they've never been surpassed. Certainly they have style. Not just the mere clockwork precision that you might expect."

We get to see the mechanism, and other sketches by the mechanical boy (and hear the mechanism moving).

Then Marianne, the boy's "big sister," who plays — actually plays — a small harmonium, [4] fingers moving, and eyes also, rather subtly.

Third automaton: Charles. "He's a writer," with a quill, "and can compose almost any message in a fine, regular, 18th-century hand. Like many writers, he can be temperamental. He won't tolerate any sudden change in temperature, a few degrees warmer or cooler, and he'll sulk, make spelling mistakes, neglect his spacing, even forget to write at all." When working, he dips the quill into ink: "A wonderfully natural movement followed by his head and his eyes." Charles is run by mechanisms "even more complex than those of his brother and sister," which we see, and we see a shot of what may look to old viewers in the 21st-c. like the stacked records of a relatively high-tech jukebox, with the arm about to take a record from the stack.

We and others in Facebook conversations find interesting calling these automata "Creepy"; students of the uncanny and "the Fantastic" may find the usages not just interesting but instructive: evidence that some 20th-c. people were "creeped out," as a 20th-c. expression had it, by mechanisms that do an elegant job mimicking human beings.


ChadD, RDE, finishing, 6Sep23, 7Sep23