AskDefine | Define automaton

Dictionary Definition



1 someone who acts or responds in a mechanical or apathetic way; "only an automaton wouldn't have noticed" [syn: zombi, zombie]
2 a mechanism that can move automatically [syn: robot, golem] [also: automata (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



From Ancient Greek αυτόματον (automaton), neutral of αυτόματος (automatos) "selfmoving, moving of oneself, self-acting, spontaneous", from αυτός (autos) "self, myself" + μέμαα (memaa) "to wish eagerly, strive, yearn, desire".


  • ô-tŏm'ə-tən, /ɔːˈtɒmətən/, /O:"tQm@t@n/
  • ô-tŏm'ə-tŏn", /ɔːˈtɒməˌtɒn/, /O:"tQm@%tQn/


  1. A machine, robot, or formal system designed to follow a precise sequence of instructions.
    Due to her strict adherence to her daily schedule, Jessica was becoming more and more convinced that she was an automaton.
    A departure from principle in one instance becomes a precedent for a second, that second for a third, and so on 'til the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering. - Thomas Jefferson
  2. A toy in the form of a mechanical figure

Derived terms


machine, robot, or formal system
  • Albanian: automat
  • Croatian: automat
  • Czech: automat
  • Italian: automa (1,2)
  • Japanese: オートマトン, 自動機械
  • Portuguese: autômato
  • Romanian: automat
  • Swedish: automat

Extensive Definition

This article is about a self-operating machine. For other uses of Automaton, see Automaton (disambiguation) or Automata (disambiguation).
An automaton (plural: automata or automatons) is a self-operating machine. The word is sometimes used to describe a robot, more specifically an autonomous robot. Used colloquially, it refers to a mindless follower.


The word Automaton, is derived from the Greek , automatos, “acting of one’s own will” is more often used to describe non-electronic moving machines, especially those that have been made to resemble human or animal actions, such as the jacks on old public striking clocks, or the cuckoo and any other animated figures on a cuckoo clock.

Ancient automata

The automata of Ancient Greece were intended as toys, religious idols to impress worshipers, or tools for demonstrating basic scientific principles, including those built by Hero of Alexandria (sometimes known as Heron). When his writings on hydraulics, pneumatics, and mechanics were translated into Latin in the sixteenth century, Hero’s readers initiated reconstruction of his machines, which included siphons, a fire engine, a water organ, and various steam-powered devices.
Complex mechanical devices are known to have existed in ancient Greece, though the only surviving example is the Antikythera mechanism. It is thought to have come from Rhodes, where there was apparently a tradition of mechanical engineering. The island was renowned for its automata; to quote Pindar's seventh Olympic Ode:
The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
move their marble feet.
There are also examples from myth: Daedalus used quicksilver to install a voice in his statues. Hephaestus created automata for his workshop: Talos, an artificial man of bronze, and, according to Hesiod, the woman Pandora.
In ancient China, a curious account on automata is found in the Lie Zi text, written in the 3rd century BC. Within it there is a description of a much earlier encounter between King Mu of Zhou (1023-957 BC) and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi, an 'artificer'. The latter proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical 'handiwork' (Wade-Giles spelling):
The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time...As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yen Shih [Yan Shi] executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial...The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted.
Medieval Persian alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan included recipes for constructing artificial snakes, scorpions, and humans which would be subject to their creator's control in his coded Book of Stones.

Automata from the 13th to 19th centuries

Al-Jazari is credited for the first recorded designs of a programmable automaton in 1206, used for a set of humanoid automata.
Villard de Honnecourt, in his 1230s sketchbook, show plans for animal automata and an angel that perpetually turns to face the sun.
The Chinese author Xiao Xun wrote that when the Ming Dynasty founder Hongwu (r. 1368–1398) was destroying the palaces of Khanbaliq belonging to the previous Yuan Dynasty, there were—amongst many other mechanical devices—automatons found that were in the shape of tigers.
Leonardo da Vinci sketched a more complex automaton around the year 1495. The design of Leonardo's robot was not rediscovered until the 1950s. The robot, which appears in Leonardo's sketches, could, if built successfully, move its arms, twist its head, and sit up. The device was built and it actually functioned.
The Renaissance witnessed a considerable revival of interest in automata. Hero's treatises were edited and translated into Latin and Italian. Numerous clockwork automata were manufactured in the sixteenth century, principally by the goldsmiths of the Free Imperial Cities of central Europe. These wondrous devices found a home in the cabinets of curiosities or Wunderkammern of the princely courts of Europe. Hydraulic and pneumatic automata, similar to those described by Hero, were created for garden grottoes. A new attitude towards automata is to be found in Descartes when he suggested that the bodies of animals are nothing more than complex machines - the bones, muscles and organs could be replaced with cogs, pistons and cams. Thus mechanism became the standard to which Nature and the organism was compared. Seventeenth-century France was the birthplace of those ingenious mechanical toys that were to become prototypes for the engines of the industrial revolution. Thus, in 1649, when Louis XIV was still a child, an artisan named Camus designed for him a miniature coach, and horses complete with footmen, page and a lady within the coach; all these figures exhibited a perfect movement. According to P. Labat, General de Gennes constructed, in 1688, in addition to machines for gunnery and navigation, a peacock that walked and ate. The Jesuit Athanasius Kircher produced many automatons to create jesuit shows, including a statue which spoke and listened via a speaking tube.
The world's first successfully-built biomechanical automaton is considered to be The Flute Player, invented by the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737. He also constructed a mechanical duck that gave the false illusion of eating and defecating, seeming to endorse Cartesian ideas that animals are no more than machines of flesh.
In 1769, a chess-playing machine called the Turk, created by Wolfgang von Kempelen, made the rounds of the courts of Europe purporting to be an automaton. The Turk was operated from inside by a hidden human director, and was not a true automaton.
Other 18th century automaton makers include the prolific Frenchman Pierre Jaquet-Droz (see Jaquet-Droz automata) and his contemporary Henri Maillardet. Maillardet, a Swiss mechanician, created an automaton capable of drawing four pictures and writing three poems. Maillardet's Automaton is now part of the collections at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.
According to philosopher Michel Foucault, Frederick the Great, king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, was "obsessed" with automata . According to Manuel de Landa, "he put together his armies as a well-oiled clockwork mechanism whose components were robot-like warriors."
Japan adopted automata during the Edo period (1603-1867); they were known as Karakuri.
The famous magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805 - 1871) was known for creating automata for his stage shows.
The period 1860 to 1910 is known as "The Golden Age of Automata". During this period many small family based companies of Automata makers thrived in Paris. From their workshops they exported thousands of clockwork automata and mechanical singing birds around the world. It is these French automata that are collected today, although now rare and expensive they attract collectors worldwide. The main French makers were Vichy, Roullet & Decamps, Lambert, Phalibois, Renou and Bontems. Antique automata are promoted and restored in the UK by Automatomania.

Contemporary automata

Contemporary automata continue this tradition with an emphasis on art, rather than technological sophistication. Contemporary automata are represented by the works of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in the United Kingdom and Dug North and Chomick+Meder and Thomas Kuntz in the United States.
An evolution of the mechanized toys developed during the 18th and 19th centuries is represented by automata made with paper. Despite the relative simplicity of the material, paper automata intrinsically are objects with a high degree of technology, where the principles of mechanics meet the artistic creativity.

Other historic examples

Other notable examples of automata include Archytas's dove, mentioned by Aulus Gellius, Noct. Att. L. 10; and Regiomontanus's wooden eagle and iron fly, the former which, as Hakewill relates, flew forth of the city, met the emperor, saluted him, and returned. It is said that the iron fly flew out of Regiomontanus's hands at a feast, and taking a round, returned to him. Similar Chinese accounts of flying automata are written of the 5th century BC Mohist philosopher Mozi and his contemporary Lu Ban, who made artificial wooden birds (ma yuan) that could successfully fly according to the Han Fei Zi and other texts.
The Smithsonian Institution has in its collection a clockwork monk, about 15 inches high, possibly dating as early as 1560. The monk is driven by a key-wound spring and walks the path of a square, striking his chest with his right arm, while raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. It is believed that the monk was manufactured by Juanelo Turriano, mechanician to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.


  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 2. England: Cambridge University Press.


automaton in Arabic: آلة ذاتية التشغيل
automaton in Bengali: স্বয়ংক্রিয় যন্ত্র
automaton in German: Automat
automaton in Spanish: Autómata (mecánico)
automaton in French: Automate
automaton in Japanese: オートマタ
automaton in Polish: Automat
automaton in Portuguese: Autômato
automaton in Russian: Автомат (механизм)
automaton in Finnish: Automaatti
automaton in Swedish: Automat
automaton in Turkish: otomat
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