Automata and Frankenstein


By Erminio D’Onofrio | NYPL Science Library

Electrical experimentation wasn’t the only influence in the air in 1816 when Mary Shelley invented the famous scientist Victor Frankenstein and his equally famous Creature. She was also likely aware of another field of innovation that may have shaped her creation: automata, or mechanized dolls and other self-operating devices. For readers who are interested in discovering more about these mechanical early robots — which grew out of the European watch-making industry and were often able to write poetry, play music, or draw — and how they may have influenced Frankenstein, The New York Public Library offers many resources to explore.

A good place to begin is with the research of Julia Douthwaite, a professor of Romance languages and literatures at the University of Notre Dame. She posits that Frankenstein and his man-made Creature were perhaps not as original as commonly believed. In a 2009 article in the European Romantic Review, Douthwaite examines a work published in France in 1790 — nearly 30 years before Frankenstein — by the author François-Félix Nogaret, which tells of an inventor named Frankenstein who builds a full-sized automaton that comes to life. “It is simply astounding,” Douthwaite writes of Nogaret’s work, “to find a story about an inventor named Frankenstein who builds an artificial man during the French Revolution, especially since the Revolution and its attempt to make a ‘new man’ and a new nation have long been a central lens for viewing Shelley’s work.”

Since it is quite possible that Shelley may have known or heard of Nogaret’s story, it is interesting to note the connection that the two authors have to kindly or unkindly automata. The creations in both stories bring together technology and politics supporting scientific progress and industrial innovation; they also raise questions about whether progress is inherently good or evil.

French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson’s mechanized “Digesting Duck” from 1739. NYPL, General Research Division

Automata have a long history, as shown by Silvio A. Bedini in his 1964 article “The Role of Automata in the History of Technology.” He argues that these early robots were the first complex machines produced by man to emulate nature and domesticate natural forces. Such attempts at imitating life by mechanical means have sustained technological advances through time, up until today. The first such humanoid was built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1495. Da Vinci created his “clockwork” automaton in the image of a medieval Italian knight and designed it to sit up, wave its arms, move its head using a flexible neck, and even open and close its jaw.

Another important early automaton creator was Hans Bullmann of Nuremberg, who in the 1500s went even further to emulate living humans through mechanical means, creating “androids” that performed a variety of movements, including some that could play musical instruments.

Further and more complex development of androids took place in the mid-18th century. The French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782) brought the production of automata to its highest point during this time and is considered by many to have built some of the field’s most important creations, including a mechanical flautist who could play just like a human and a mechanized duck that ate, swallowed, and even defecated. Vaucanson was born in Grenoble, where he grew up poor but aspired to be a clockmaker. After dabbling in religious studies, he renewed his interest in mechanical devices following a meeting with the famous surgeon Le Cat, who taught him the details of anatomy. Vaucanson used this knowledge of the human body to develop mechanisms that skillfully mimicked biological functions, such as breathing and eating, dazzling audiences in displays.

A mechanical “Steam man” invented by George Moore in the 1800s. NYPL, General Research Division

Jacquet-Droz’s “La Musicienne” (“The Musician”) from the late 1700s. NYPL, General Research Division

Among Vaucanson’s successors, Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his son Henri-Louis of Geneva were able to devise machines that even more faithfully imitated humans. In 1773, Jacquet-Droz created his famous L’Ecrivain (The Writer), which could reproduce any text up to 40 characters long, and is still on display in Switzerland. Henri-Louis created two other prized automata, also still on view, Le Dessinateur (The Draftsman), which could draw four pictures, and La Musicienne (The Musician), which played music on a sort of organ while following the keys with her gaze and even breathing.

Henri Maillardet is another Swiss mechanician, who apprenticed in the London shop of Pierre Jacquet-Droz and went on to create his own writing automaton. Maillardet’s “Draughtsman-Writer” — which is still on display at the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia — was built circa 1810 and is considered to have the largest "memory" of any automaton; it can expertly draw four sketches and write three poems, two in French and one in English. More recently, this automaton inspired Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which director Martin Scorsese adapted in his Oscar-winning 2011 film, Hugo.

On the subject of automata in modern automation and cybernetics, “The Living Machines of the Industrial Age: 1833–1914,” a chapter in Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, by Minsoo Kang, provides an outline of the field at the time. It includes a discussion of a so-called “influence machine,” which Kang describes as “a spectacular instrument that gave off showers of sparks from static electricity, supposedly creating a force field with beneficial effects on those with nerve-related illnesses.” The French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893), considered to be the founder of modern neurology, doubted the efficacy of this machine but still thought it offered positive value in treating hysterics through the power of suggestion.

Watch an automaton in action. Video courtesy The Franklin Institute

For an interesting look at the world of automata up through the late 1920s, Le Monde des automates by A. Chapuis and E. Gelis is an excellent source replete with more than 500 drawings and illustrations, some of them in color.

More currently, the field of robotics is refining many of its developments and is taking the technology to new heights. For example, a U.S. patent for a “legged locomotion robot” — issued in September 2011 — describes a robot that uses a camera to capture its surroundings in order to navigate its way.

Other researchers are experimenting with robotic suits, as a 2008 Scientific American article on the “Real-Life Iron Man” explains. Exoskeleton technology is designed to enhance the wearer’s own strength and mobility, thereby allowing laborers or rescuers to lift heavier loads, for example, or to assist injured people. Cyberdyne, a Japanese company working on the technology, is also creating a model that can operate on its own by using information stored in its computer, which would be particularly beneficial to people who have lost movement due to spinal cord injuries or strokes. Such technology is still in its early stages, but it showcases the same centuries-old quest to emulate life that gave us the fictional Victor Frankenstein’s Creature, as well as many real-life automata before and after him.

A U.S. patent for a “Legged Locomotion Robot” issued in 2011. Image courtesy the United States Patent and Trademark Office

Bedini, Silvio A. “The Role of Automata in the History of Technology.” Technology and Culture, v.5, no. 3, Winter 1964; pp. 24–42.

Chapuis, A. and Gélis, E. Le Monde des automates: étude historique et technique. Paris, [E. Gélis; Neuchâtel (Suisse) A. Chapuis] 1928, 2 vols.

Douthwaite, Julia V. & Richter, Daniel. “The Frankenstein of the French Revolution: Nogaret’s automaton tale of 1790.” European Romantic Review, v.20, no. 3, July 2009; pp. 381-411.

Greenemeier, Larry. “Real-Life Iron Man: A Robotic Suit That Magnifies Human Strength.” Scientific American, April 30, 2008.

Kang, Minsoo. Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Nogaret, François-Félix. Le Miroir des événemens actuels, ou la belle au plus offrant. Paris: Au Palais Royal, 1790.

Erminio D’Onofrio is the Head of Information Services at NYPL’s Science, Industry and Business Library. Government Information is one of his specialties. He has a BA in French Literature from SUNY, Albany; an MS in Library and Information Science from Pratt Institute; and an MA in Political Science from New York University.
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Many thanks to Mr. D'Onofrio

Many thanks to Mr. D'Onofrio for sharing the word about the "French Frankenstein." In a book just published, I lay out a genealogy of Frankenstein's creature as automaton: it starts with the automaton shows of Paris and London, as popularized in Nogaret's novella, then delves into a satire by great mathematician Condorcet and an odd tale by a republican general named Doppet, and ends with E.T. A. Hoffmann, "The Sandman." The book is called "The Frankenstein of 1790 and other Lost Chapters from Revolutionary France" (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Again, many thanks for your interest in my work; I am honored by the mention. Sincerely,
Julia Douthwaite


Mr. D'Onofrio's crisp and

Mr. D'Onofrio's crisp and engaging writing style has made for a fascinating essay on the subject; it is both erudite and tremendously informative. For someone who majored in English Literature, it was embarrassing for me to discover that Mary Shelley "borrowed" as heavily as she did in the creation of her iconic characters. Among the thoughts that came to mind was, "You know, Mary, you could at least have given your principal character a different name other than the one you 'lifted' from Nogaret!"

In any event, Mr. D'Onofrio's essay is very skillfully written and moves through over 500 years of history effortlessly. Many thanks to the editors who chose to publish it. Many thanks to Mr. D'Onofrio for a terrific read.


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