Uncomfortable Automata and the Business of Nightmares

Automata have often enchanted us, always puzzled us. The clockwork robot, the automaton, has a mystery borne of time: it is ingenious, but also borrows the mystique of being an ancient object run in a time-honoured way.

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

But they can unsettle one too.  Especially the human ones. They have never lived, and yet they move like living things. There is movement but the absence of a heartbeat; eyes which flicker and blink, hands which reach and grasp yet have no tendons or muscles.

It was one of the iconic films of the 1980s ‘Big” which used the automaton to enchanting – and rather chilling effect:

You can watch the whole scene here: http://klipd.com/watch/big/your-wish-is-granted-scene

And the other day as I moved through a famous London Museum, I got that ‘Big’ feeling all over again. Though this time, the subject was no  automaton: just a shell which glared and threatened, and glowered. And I’ll wager he, too, does not need a plug and electricity to move, should he so choose.

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This creature, though, is well over 500 years old.

His name is Antigius, and he was born in  a town in Lombardy at the foot of the Alps. He was made to hold something much older than half a millennium: a man’s skull, the remains of the saint-bishop himself, about whom we know very little.  It is thought those remains had been  housed in a monastery in Brescia, of which this saint was once bishop, since 900AD.

No-one knows who made this creature who presides icily over Mediaeval and Renaissance room 10 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. His beginnings are shrouded in mystery. He is a thing of beauty, sure: but a thing of unease in equal measure.


25 thoughts on “Uncomfortable Automata and the Business of Nightmares

  1. This brought back memories of the Isle of Wight. They have an automaton similar to the one in ‘Big’ that hands out letters of fate to unsuspecting children! Loved it!

  2. I don’t know that I find automatons particularly disturbing They’re clearly unthinking and don’t even have the diginity of true machines in doing real work. Robots and especially AI Robots perhaps deserve more of our respect / fear. Sci-Fi books and films have rightly identified our ability to build sentient Robots as possibly one of the greatest threats to ourselves – assuming we don’t global-warm or polute ourselves out of existence first! Lets hope all of our efforts are Mr. Data’s 😉

  3. Should you ever get the chance to visit, our Musical Instrument Museum has a collection and as my children will tell you, they are downright creepy.

  4. testing does not allow me to leave likes. Problem now with about 40% of blogs I follow. I suppose this is new blog as I see I was not subscribed. Am reading another of Jack Whyte – “The Fort at the River’s Bend”. 8 year old King Arthur and Merlyn.

    1. Hi Carl, WordPress made a mistake and unsubscribed a load of people a while ago – I’m sorry of you got caught up in that! Whilst they insist they put it right I’m not sure they reinstated everyone who was subscribed before. Great to see you, however. The book sounds great…

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