Posts Tagged ‘Automata’

1820 – Prosopographus, the Automaton Artist – Charles Hervé



Selected extract from the full post by Patrick Feaster here.

Between 1820 and 1835, a machine was exhibited around Great Britain that was advertised as taking people’s portraits by strictly automatic means.  Someone had only to pay a shilling and sit perfectly still next to it for the space of a minute to obtain a likeness alleged to be more accurate than anything a living artist could have drawn.  The machine relied on principles very different from those of photography, first introduced to the world via the daguerreotype in 1839, and its portraits didn’t anticipate the photographic portraits of later years in any technical sense.  However, they did anticipate them quite closely in a cultural sense.  As far as subjects were concerned, they might have gone to get their pictures taken by this machine in 1825, and again by a photographic camera in 1845, without perceiving any fundamental difference between the two experiences.  In both cases, they would have been told that their likenesses were being captured automatically, without the mediation of a human observer, although they might still have paid extra for someone to touch up the results afterwards or add color to them.  The earlier machine went by the name of “Prosopographus, the Automaton Artist,” and it produced silhouettes—thousands upon thousands of them, if reports from the time are to be believed.  I was recently fortunate enough to acquire one, which is what prompted me to pull together the following account.


In appearance, Prosopographus was a miniature android figure dressed in fancy Spanish costume, shown above as illustrated on a period handbill.  I’ll refer to it here myself as “it,” but contemporaries generally anthropomorphized it as “him,” consistent with the grammatical gender of its Greco-Latinate name: Prosopo- (“face”) -graph- (“writer”) –us (second declension nominative masculine ending).  It held a pencil in its hand, and when someone sat down next to it, it would use this pencil—within full view of spectators—to trace an outline of the person’s profile.  The process was described variously as taking less than a minute, half a minute, or less than half a minute, but subjects had to hold perfectly still during that time: “The least movement on the part of the sitter will occasion the Automaton to shake his head, and the operation of taking the outline to be recommenced.  Advertisements emphasized that this work was carried out “without even touching the Face, and indeed “without touching, or having the slightest communication with the Person.  Daylight wasn’t necessary either, patrons were assured, so that likenesses could continue to be taken after sunset.  The proprietor never revealed the specific process used to capture people’s profiles, but it was claimed to be wholly mechanical, and hence superhuman in its accuracy.  Thus, Prosopographus was billed as “performing more perfect resemblances than is in the power of any living hand to trace,  and as “so contrived that by means of mechanism it is enabled to trace a more accurate and pleasing resemblance of any face that may be presented than could be produced through the agency of any LIVING artist whatever.

The basic portrait to which every visitor was entitled by default seems to have consisted of the profile painted in black, and some later advertisements specified that this included glass and a frame.  For a surcharge, however, the profiles could also be cut out, shaded, bronzed, or done up in full color, as well as mounted in a fancier frame, at prices up to thirty guineas if anyone cared to pay that much. The result, in any case, was something visually indistinguishable from a conventional silhouette portrait of the period.

And that complicates our present ability to identify surviving specimens of Prosopographus’s work.  According to Profiles of the Past, a website dedicated to the history of British silhouette portraiture, “very few silhouettes [by Prosopographus] are known today,” even though countless thousands are said to have been taken.  Technically, however, what’s rare is a silhouette that can be attributed to Prosopographus because it’s labeled that way on the back.  The few reported types of Prosopographus trade label are linked to just a few exhibition venues, so it may be that silhouettes taken in other places weren’t labeled, making them impossible to tell apart from “ordinary” silhouettes.  For all we know, nearly all unlabeled silhouettes of the 1820s and 1830s might be the work of Prosopographus, which would make them extremely common.  However, it’s only when there’s a label that we know for sure what we have.


The Prosopographus portrait I recently acquired is one of those with the Halifax trade label and promotional text on the back, augmented by a handwritten inscription identifying its subject as Ellen Waterhouse.  The silhouette itself is a likeness of the basic type that was thrown in free with the price of admission: the profile painted in black, with just a few embellishments added in the same color to represent hair and veil.

See the full post by Patrick Feaster here.

See other early Robots in Art and Drawing Machines here.

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1810 – Automaton Trumpet Player – Friedrich Kaufmann (German)

The Kaufmann Trumpeter had leather bellows for lungs and reeds which imitated the sound of a brass instrument.

The Kaufmann family from Dresden. Friedrich id on the right. 

Text incorrectly dates the 'Robot' from 1910, it should be 1810. 

[Source: Popular Mechanics Aug 1950]


This is an example of a program (e.g. stepped drum) mounted into an automata to play a tune, like the European street organs. The notches mounted on the drum activated valves that let the air pass by 12 tongues. Which produced a kind of modulated sound. This sound will be modulated through a trumpet so it does sound like a trumpet The stepped drum and the bellows are powered by a spring mechanism that need to be wound up, observe the crank laying at the bottom. The height of this automata is apr. 180 cm.

From the Illustrated London News July 5, 1851. The centrepiece is Kaufmann's magnificent Orchestrion.

[Source: Clockwork Music, Ord-Hume]

The Trumpet Automaton is a figure not unlike Mario in the " Puritani," with the instrument at its mouth. It was invented many years ago by Herr Kaufmann, and won the admiration of Carl Maria Von Weber. What is most remarkable and inconceivable in this extraordinary piece of mechanism, is, that it produces double sounds of equal strength and purity, and flourishes in octaves, tierces, quints, Re., are heard. Perhaps this acoustic curiosity may supply some key to Vivier's wondrous horn effects, certain notes accompanying particular chords. If this discovery should be established, that one instrument can do the same with equal perfection as two instruments, it may lead to something, as natural intonation may surely effect what a piece of machinery can do…….To construct such instruments without models, for they are quite original, the maker must be a musician, a mechanic, a mathematician, and a philosopher.

[Source: Clockwork Music – Ord-Hume]

Carl Maria Von Weber

By John Hamilton Warrack 

He also paid a visit on his friend Friedrich Kaufmann, whose latest nvention was a mechanical trumpeter in Spanish costume which played two simultaneous notes at set times.(2)

(2) Subsequently this Hoffmannesque creature went off unexpectedly, knocking Kaufmann sensless and blinding him in one eye. Thereafter Weber took leasure in speaking of the trumpeter's sinister powers with his voice lowered.

The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : Wednesday 2 August 1933 page 3


Hobart Concert Orchestra,

The Hobart Concert Orchestra, under Mr. David Feirclough, is busy rehearsing tor the next concert a programme of music never performed in Hobart before. It will include an Adagio and Rondo written in 1821 by Carl Marla von Weber for Friedrich Kaufmann, of Dresden, whose, Acoustic Cabinet had aroused the composer's interest to such a degree that he wrote a pamphlet for the purpose of directing the attention of wider circles to the triumphs of craftsmanship shown there, including a trumpeter playing his instrument. But more than by the musical automatons the interest of the master was captured by the harmonichord, invented by Kaufmann in 1810, and the forerunner of the
harmonium. As independent as the organ or the pianoforte, it allowed the player to utter his thoughts and feelings most effectively. With the eye of genius Webér recognised the capacity and character of the new instrument, and saw that it must have a future. Fully worthy of Weber and a model for later composers is the style that delights the hearer of the "Adagio and Rondo for the Harmonichord (Harmonium) with accompaniment of the orchestra."

Enchanted wanderer: the life of Carl Maria von Weber

Lucy Poate Stebbins, Richard Poate Stebbins – 1940 – 345 pages

In Dresden, Weber inspected the workshop of his Munich acquaintance, Friedrich Kaufmann, who had invented a mechanical trumpet which would play two notes at once "so clear and equal in volume that one would swear he heard two trumpets.

Kaufmann's Trumpeter is in Deutches Museum. 

Using Google translation:

In the jargon of an empty museum curator, the mechanism of the machine described as follows: With the highly visible hand crank can be raised under the clothing of the trumpeter's two spiral springs, which drive the two Schöpfbälge and the spiral-tipped pen systems with two wooden drum stick. Four scanning lever and two toothed segments transmit the pulses of a pin system in two rotatably mounted brass drums that have plugged each 6 striking end tongues in the type of revolver drums. Each to blow off some tongue comes through rotation of the drum in front of one of the two valves are wind, whose motion is controlled by the second pin system (rhythm). The outlet openings of the drums lead into playing position in the mouthpiece of a natural trumpet that the ummoduliert Zungenton largely in a real trumpet. (Sequence of notes left drum: g C g h c f; right drum sound sequence: g E d e G a)


See other early Humanoid Robots here.

1849 – Flute-Playing Automaton – Innocenzo Manzetti (Italian)


1849 – Flute-Playing Automaton by Innocenzo Manzetti.





A comparison photo above showing the Flautist's size with a real person.

In 1849  Innocenzo Manzetti constructed a flute-playing automaton, in the shape of a man, life-size, seated on a chair. Hidden inside the chair were levers, connecting rods and compressed air tubes, which made the automaton's lips and fingers move on the flute according to a program recorded on a cylinder similar to those used in player pianos. The automaton was powered by clockwork and could perform 12 different arias. As part of the performance it would rise from the chair, bow its head, and roll its eyes.

Innocenzo Manzetti

Later he managed to get his automaton to play any piece performed by a musician on an organ by muting the organ's keys and connecting them to the automaton's fingers. A complex automaton was described in the same 1865 news article that described Manzetti's telephone. It is claimed he also built, as a toy for his daughter, a wooden flying parrot which would beat its wings then, reportedly, rise into the air and hover for two or three minutes before settling on a shelf.

Curiosity of Science, Le Petit Journal, November 22, 1865, No.1026, p.3 (bottom). ]

See other early Musical Automatons here.

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Mechanical Elephants – Toys and Automata


A modern piece of elephant automata.

Ducamps automata made for Barnum.

The above automaton, by Decamps, shows further articulation in the legs, offering a 'knee' action.

Martinet elephant clock c1790.  See youtube video clip here and here .

Walkindg model elephant made from Meccano.

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1875 “Psycho” the Whist-playing Automaton – Maskelyne & Clarke (British)

"Psycho" at the Museum of Science, London. (Image source: Mechanical Toys – Charles Bartholomew)

My intent in putting up this entry is to draw attention on the aspect of remote control by which the slave component is anthropomorphic. This fits in with the early history of teleoperators and manipulators. All other aspects of "Psycho" are well covered on the net and in books already, well beyond my capability,  available time, and need.

This remote control shows early thinking using available technology on the problem of how to manipulate an anthropomorphic arm by remote, and in this case, quite novel means.

Whilst Maskelyne's "Psycho" was the first Whist-Player, my two main sources are based on the Whist-player published in Will Goldston's book "Exclusive Magical Secrets" 1912 and Vere's 1879 book Ancient and Modern Magic. My copy of Goldston's book is a mass produced paperback version published by Coles. Goldston states that his description is based on the property of A.W. Gamage, Ltd. Gamage were suppliers of apparatus as well as publishers.

"Psycho" was first exposed by Dr. W. Pole [a writer of card playing strategies] in January of 1876 [RH: actually published for the Christmas edition, which is the January edition] who became aware of the existance of Maskelyne's and Cooke's new Whist-playing automaton act, and published his description in McMillan's Magazine. (see MacMillan's pdf here).

Note: RH Jan 2011  The patent only gained a provisional protection and there were no published drawings with it. See patent details here.

Note: RH Jan 2011 My research to date has not revealed anyone who has mentioned that the "Psycho's" pictured with Maskylene above and below are actually different. The number of cards on display has been reduced from 13 to 5, and the panels in the cabinetry are different. The base is different too, hence the change in overall height. 

[UPATE 8 JUNE 2011 – Maria (see comments below) advises that Psycho as he is seen today still shows 13 cards, but they are laid out in 3 rows now. the front row furthest away from him holds 5 cards in a slight arc, as does the second row and the third row nearest his body holds 3. – Thanks Maria!]

Side-by-side for an easier comparison. From what I can see externally, only the head is the same.


(From Automata, Chapuis & Droz – 1958 English Translated Alec Reid)

Several sham automata are operated from a distance by compressed air, and the card-player shown in figure 473 is an example of this.

A platform with a large cylinder of clear glass on top of it is brought on to the stage, then the automaton is shown to the public and is placed on a glass cylinder to make it seem completely isolated from any outside communication. But an assistant under the dais attaches a tube connected to a large rubber bulb, and by pressing this, he increases the air pressure in the whole machine through the glass tube visible to the audience. Inside the card-player's body is a bellows, which fills up under the increased pressure, and one can easily imagine how this mechanical movement will make the imitation card player work.
A clock-work mechanism, A, works continuously while pulling in one direction or the other a vertical axis, B, which controls the position of the player's arm on the table and in the area where the cards are laid out. The clock-work movement also connects with the head by the pulleys, H, and the axle, M.
When the bulb is squeezed, the head and the arm turn slowly in the required direction, but as soon as it has been emptied the bellows, C, allows the rod, E, to come down, and a key, G, which is attached to it, engages the teeth of a segment F, which is carried by the axle for the arm. This is stopped at exactly the desired place. When the rod, E, drops, it pulls the cord, L, which is stretched and moves the thumb of the automaton's hand so that it grips the card selected.
The assistant under the stage receives his instructions through a speaking-tube, into which speaks a commentator, who is hidden from the public and is following the game with opera glasses. The spectators have no idea at all how such an ingenious deceit is contrived.

Excerpts from Ancient and Modern Magic.

Ancient and Modern Magic by Aprey Vere, 1879 here and here.

Excerpts from Goldston's 1912 book Exclusive Magical Secrets.

See the full chapter on Automata in Exclusive Magical Secrets by Will Golston, 1912 here.

extract from 1902 Encyclopedia White Magic

 WHITE MAGIC. Under this head is included the art of performing tricks and exhibiting illusions by aid of apparatus, excluding feats of dexterity in which there is no deception, together with the performances of such automaton figures as are actuated in a secret and mysterious manner.

Among the most meritorious and celebrated mechanical illusions have been automaton figures secretly influenced in their movements by concealed operators. In the 17th century M. Raisin, organist of Troyes, took to the French court a harpsichord which played airs as directed by the audience; but, upon opening the instrument, Louis XIV. discovered a youthful performer inside. In 1769 Baron Kempelen, of Pressburg, in Hungary, completed his chessplayer, which for a long time remained the puzzle of Europe. It was an illusion,—the merit consisting in the devices by which the confederate player was hidden in the cabinet and body of the figure, while the interior was opened in successive instalments to the scrutiny of the spectators. The first player was a Polish patriot, Worousky, who had lost both legs in a campaign; as he was furnished with artificial limbs when in public, his appearance, together with the fact that no dwarf or child travelled in Kempelen’s company, dispelled the suspicion that any person could be employed inside the machine. This automaton, which made more than one tour to the capitals and courts of Europe, and was owned for a short, time by Napoleon I., was exhibited by Maelzel after the death of Kempelen in 1819, and ultimately perished in a fire at Philadelphia in 1854. A revival of the trick appeared in Hooper’s "Ajeeb," shown a few years ago at the Sydenham Crystal Palace and elsewhere. Still more recently a chessplaying figure, "Mephisto," designed by Gumpel, has been on view. No space exists for the accommodation of a living player within; but, as there is no attempt at isolating the apparatus from mechanical communication through the carpet or the floor, there is nothing to preclude the moving arm and gripping finger and thumb of the figure from being worked by any convenient connexion of threads, wires, rods, and levers. In 1875 Maskelyne and Cooke produced at the Egyptian Hall, in London, an automaton whist-player, "Psycho," which, from the manner in which it is placed upon the stage, appears to be perfectly isolated from any mechanical communication from without; there is no room within for the concealment of a living player by aid of any optical or other illusion, and yet the free motions of both arms, especially of the right arm and hand in finding any card, taking hold of it, and raising it or lowering it to any position and at any speed as demanded by the audience, prove that the actions are directed from without. The arm has all the complicated movements necessary for chess or draught playing; and Psycho calculates any sum up to a total of 99,000,000. What the mysterious means of connexion are has not been discovered ; or, at any rate, down to the time of writing this article there has appeared no correct imitation of this joint invention of John Nevil Maskelyne and John Algernon Clarke. Perhaps a still more original automaton is Maskelyne’s figure "Zoe," constructed in 1877, which writes and draws at dictation of the audience, yet cannot have a living person within, and could not be more completely severed from all conceivable means of control without. "Zoe," a nearly life-size but very light doll, sits loose upon a cushioned skeleton-stand, of which the solid feet of the plinth rest upon a thick plate of clear glass laid upon the floor-cloth or carpet of the stage. "Psycho," a smaller Oriental figure, sitting cross-legged on a box, is supported by a single large cylinder of clear glass, which, as originally exhibited, stood upon the carpet of the stage, but was afterwards set loose upon a small stool, having solid wood feet; moreover, this automaton may be placed in almost any number of different ways. Thus, from the precautions observed in the isolation of Maskelyne’s automata, no current of electricity, no magnetic attraction, no hydraulic or pneumatic force can reach them, or, if it could, would not account for the many and delicate movements which they execute; and there can be no wires, threads, or hairs, passing in any direction away from the figures, seeing that persons from the audience admitted close around the figures while they are in operation could not fail to observe them. It may be mentioned that, in the same year in which "Psycho" appeared, the joint inventors patented a method of controlling the speed of clockwork mechanism by compressed air or gas stored in the pedestal of an automaton, this compressed fluid acting upon a piston in a cylinder and also upon a rotating fan when a valve is opened by "an electrical or other connexion worked by the foot of the performer or an assistant." But it is not known whether the principle obscurely described in the specification was applicable in any way to the invisible agency employed in "Psycho" or in "Zoe," or whether it had reference to some other invention which has never been realized. The whist-playing automaton is affirmed to be the only one of Maskelyne’s many subtle inventions in which he received suggestions from another person.

Timeline of Whist-playing Automata

1829-31 Maelzel acquired Whist-player invented by Balcom (American). There is also a suggestion that a rival chess player by the Walker brothers was eventually purchased by Maelzel and converted to a whist-player.

1873-5 Maskelyne / Clarke developed "Psycho".

1875 first showing of Maskelyne's "Psycho".

1875  December – Expose in MacMillans Jan 1876 (actually released in Dec 1875 for Christmas reading) by Dr. Pole.

Hankey (Hanky) – actual small boy hidden inside – octagonal base – later sold to Signor Boz.

1875-80 – Signor Boz (Weston) with "Yorick" the Whist-player (British)

1878 – Charles Arbre (Berlin)

Robert-Houdin (French) – "Sophos le Savant"

1877 – "Zoe" (an artist automaton by Maskelyne, not a whist-player).

???? Professor Pepper – Scynthia (Synthia)

Dr. W. H. Cremer built a psycho called "Agetos" – 1880 earliest date so far – similar to Maskelyne & Clarke's original construction.

1900 Professor Dicksonn – Theatre du Cours la Reine.

French firm built a "Psycho" for Mr. Everett. There are some suggestions that it was later purchased by Kellar. Unlikely as Kellar's did not utilize a hidden boy and Everett's probably did.

???? -The New York Journal exhibited an automaton whist-player, named the "Yellow Kid," in New York – no date.

(Some of the above information was sourced from Bradley Ewart's book "Chess: Man vs Machine".)

Some other Whist-playing Automata.

Dicksonn (Professor) My Tricks. The author is possibly A. de Saint-Genois, who published one book in Paris under the pseudonym Professor Dicksonn. The manuscript is in two parts: comprising seventeen "Drawing Room Experiments", including "The Mysterious Decanter", "Improvised Coffee", and "Neptune's Basin"; and six "Tricks for the Theatre" including "The Domino or Card Player", "The Bodiless Lady", "The Transforming Cabinet" and "The Vanishing Lady".

 In 1878, Kellar returned to England and invested $12000 in new equipment, one of them being a version of Maskelyne's whist-playing automaton. Possibly A. W. Gamage's. (Gamages being suppliers of apparatus and publishers of magic related material.)  A French firm built a "Psycho" for Mr. Everett. Ewart suggest that it was possibly later purchased by Kellar.

Harry Kellar was later one of Houdini's closest friends. Kellar gave Houdini "Psycho," an "automaton," while he was in California making a motion picture. When Houdini died, his collection was acquired by his brother (Hardeen), then passed on to Sidney H. Radner. Gaughan most likely purchased from Radner's Houdini collection when auctioned off in 2004.

As Kellar's Psycho appears today in the John Gaughan Collection.