Merlin's Cave: Romantic Automata

Though automata have existed since antiquity, the proliferation, sophistication, and spectacle of eighteenth and nineteenth-century automata have been of particular interest for writers, scientists, philosophers, historians, and literary critics both during the Romantic period and today. The Romantic fascination with automata has been investigated using numerous theoretical and historical lenses: Freud’s essay on the uncanny; Marx’s theories of the impact of automated industry on labor in Das Kapital;  and contemporary studies that link automata to the Gothic, to gender studies, to visual spectacle, and to the history of artificial life. This gallery puts “real” automata in conversation with a wide array of other machines, spectacles, and contemporary representations in order to recontextualize automata within and at the borders of the Romantic era. Consequently, this gallery seeks to show that the proliferation of automata in the eighteenth century helped shape Romantic sensibilities by producing anxieties and ambivalences around such notions as human distinctiveness, individuality in a society of replicating social types, new technologies, and international and colonial trade. Though this gallery takes diversity as one of its aims, two of the reigning themes pursued are, first, the complexities of discerning “real” as opposed to “fake” artificiality, and, second, the increasingly, though not straightforwardly, hybridized human and/or machine body. This gallery thus exhibits its own eclectic, traveling, mechanical show—from famous automata to luxury clocks, planetariums, optical devices, puppets, political caricatures, and industrial technologies; from near-perfect simulations to flat-out hoaxes; from scientific investigations to royal scandals; and with stops in London, China, Europe, and antebellum America.


Lisa Hollenbach