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Talking Heads edito by Nigel Roth


In 1537, as the Spanish people tucked into patatas bravas for the first time and reflected on Pope Paul’s suggestion that indigenous people of the New World were sentient beings that probably shouldn’t be enslaved, the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus was describing how to make an automaton.

His process, which included placing sperm in horse shit and injecting blood into it for forty days, sounds more like my Mother making a meatloaf than an alchemist conjuring a humanoid, but the concept of creating artificial life was formulating in his mind as he sipped his tea in Einsiedeln.

There is no indication that his alchemical tinkering produced an automaton with any more success than Goethe’s Homunculus had had attempting to wriggle free from the flask, but automata certainly captured the imagination.

Creating a golem had been a goal of biblical proportions since the earliest religions were devised, and we find them everywhere, from the ancient Egyptians and their sacred life-filled statues, to Roger Bacon and his all-knowing automated head.

And there are amazingly-detailed reports of artificially-created beings that seem almost unreal.

From the earliest times, ancient legends tell of heads that were reanimated, continuing to offer the wisdom they did when alive by means of embalming, incantations, and herbs. Odin kept Mimir’s head close for advice, and to counsel him on war, phantom limbs, and extremely long nose hair, after it was separated from Mimir’s body in the Æsir-Vanir War.

Third century Yan Shi was known as an artificer, presenting his king with a humanoid that “walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down'' and “winked its eye and made advances to the ladies”, for which faux pas the artificer was made to dismantle the robot, showing it was made only of “leather, wood, adhesive and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue.” It was also anatomically-correct internally too, if we believe the story.

Later, in the twelfth century, we find Ismāʿīl al-Jazarī’s musical floating automaton which kept guests at parties clapping and singing along as the musicians played instruments based on a series of timed and pre-programmed sequences. The spectacle was achieved in the same way player pianos are constructed, with pegs that initiated actions at the right moments.

In the eighteenth century, the great automatoneer Pierre Jaquet-Droz created astonishing automaton like The Writer, which was made of more than six-thousand individual pieces and is said to be one of the first examples of a computer, and nearer to the artificially-intelligent creations of our modern era.

The key to this astonishing automaton is the response mechanism; the transference of text to a coded wheel which selected the letters contained in the draft. Additionally, and often frightening for many who considered these pieces almost magical, the writer (a boy) uses a goose feather which he frequently dips in an ink well and shakes off to prevent blotching, and follows the text he writes with his head.