For centuries, man has built automatons, machines that can move on their own. They were used for purposes that ranged from the sublime (the Antikythera mechanism, the world's first known analog computer built in 200 BC and used to track astronomical positions) to the whimsical or indulgent (Leonardo Da Vinci creating walking mechanical lions for King Louis the XII).
The mechanism that powered both devices and toys would later be co-opted by clockmakers, themselves creators of automatons as timepieces were self-propelling objects. But, like Da Vinci's robot lions, the mechanics proved useful as decorative detailing.
These fillips required as much skill and ingenuity to create as the timepieces themselves. Their design and manufacture took more than a few years and the result was a functional device that also sometimes doubled as decorative art.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, watches with automata became popular, especially among noblemen. Other watchmakers soon began to incorporate moving figures onto their timepieces to attract the aristocracy.
Among the most notable was a clock created by Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz in the 170os. It depicted a dog and a shepherd playing several tunes on a flute. This particular clock was presented to the King of Spain, whose court attributed the lifelike movements of the automata to witchcraft. In the 18ms, Charles Reuge made pocket watches fitted with musical movements. Other watchmakers depicted erotic scenes with mechanical lovers being made to couple. Some of these timepieces have sold well in auctions.
Today, the house of Reuge continues to create musical watches, with automata found on the dials. Ulysse Nardin, a name that has been known to the watchmaking world since 1846, has a collection of watches with automata that depict famous historical figures. In it, Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan are brought to mechanical life alongside a tourbillon and a repeater function with the Westminster Carillon. On its 275th anniversary, Jaquet-Droz released the Charming Bird in last year's Baselworld. It shows a highly detailed, singing automaton bird encased within the dial. Hublot recreated the Greek Antikythera mechanism as a wristwatch, emulating the astronomical function of the device. It has been considered an advancement in horology, having been named one of the Top 10 Complicated Watches at the 2012 Grand Prix d'Horlogerie de Geneve.
The long tradition of automata in watchmaking has yet to run its course. With venerable brands coming up with ways to innovate, these machines will continue to fascinate collectors in the years to come.
This story firs appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 18 2014.