BBC documentary on automata, clockwork and miniaturisation (UK only)
June 8, 2013 4:01 AM   Subscribe

Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams Detailed and thoughtful exploration of clockwork and automata as a phenomenon in the 17th Century and their development into machines that could imitate human activity - eventually leading to the famous Mechanical Turk (eventually exposed as fake) and the truly astounding "Silver Swan" built by John Joseph Merlin. (Definitely not a fake)

The machines that Merlin and dozens of other craftsmen created almost 300 years ago are not only staggeringly complex feats of miniaturisation and engineering. They include ideas that are the predecessors of many of the concepts used in modern computers. The cams and levers they used to encode behaviours of their machines were early forerunners of the punch cards and tape used in the first programmable computers.

Schaffer looks at how automata began as the playthings of the ultra-rich (requiring as they did the work of dozens of highly skilled artisans over months and years to create a single object) and how eventually the same technologies led to the automated looms and mills of the early industrial revolution in the UK.

Highly recommended.
posted by JohnnyForeign (9 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
First link:
"Currently BBC iPlayer TV programmes are available to play in the UK only"
and, it seems, not in New Jersey.
posted by hexatron at 6:11 AM on June 8, 2013

The Bowes Museum's website excerpts Mark Twain's description of the Silver Swan:

I watched the Silver Swan, which had a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes-watched him swimming about as comfortably and unconcernedly as it he had been born in a morass instead of a jeweller’s shop - watched him seize a silver fish from under the water and hold up his head and go through the customary and elaborate motions of swallowing it...

Twain's imagination, unspoiled by SFX, supplied a lifelikeness to the performance that you don't really see, here in the 21st century. It's poignant and charming.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:26 AM on June 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

YT Link for Yanks: clicky
posted by custardfairy at 10:59 AM on June 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've seen that silver swan, or Mucky Duck as they caal it up there.
posted by glasseyes at 11:39 AM on June 8, 2013

Thanks custardfairy
posted by achrise at 11:46 AM on June 8, 2013

Great documentary, thanks!
posted by BobsterLobster at 1:08 PM on June 8, 2013

Very interesting documentary! Thanks for posting this.

Considering when it was built and the technology available at the time, the Silver Swan seemed surprisingly lifelike to me, though as Countess Elena says, much less so than it would have to Mark Twain. It really is lovely.

I liked the Silver Swan, but I must admit human-form automata creep me out quite a bit. I've seen a few museum exhibits featuring automata similar to this one from the documentary, and the uncanny valley effect is always too much for me (even without the atmospheric music the documentary provides).
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:30 PM on June 8, 2013

Thanks again to custardfairy for the YT link. It was well worth the wait.

For a little more information see Jacques de Vaucanson. He made the flute player but was more famous for his mechanical duck, which, among other things, ate and pooped.
posted by hexatron at 3:35 PM on June 8, 2013

custardfairy: "YT Link for Yanks: clicky "

Thanks much from a grateful Yank. Really good doc. One of the things I love about MeFi is links like these to great documentaries.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 10:54 PM on June 8, 2013

« Older The number of constituent particles in one mole of...   |   Why did it have to be snakes? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments