Saturday, May 31, 2008

Extra-Universal Movement, Wild Gear Contraption

I posted a recently about Brad Litwin's clever Atom Smacker Device. Here is a piece of Brad's dating back to 1979 called Extra-Universal Movement. The hand-cranked kinetic sculpture is a wild assortment of gears, tracks, belts, cups, balls, a governor, and even an animated dragon's head! I'm blown away.

The sculpture is mostly wood, measuring approximately 20" x 16" x 22" high. The artist informs me that the piece is made of pine, Honduras mahogany, bubinga, ebony, maple, cocobolo, lignum vitae, padouk, Indian and Brazilian rosewoods, teak, cherry, walnut, birch, and satinwood -- and maybe a couple of others! Extra, indeed.

Check out the work of this multi-talented artist at

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Hexbugs Insect-Like Autonomous Robots

HexBug Insect RobotHexBugs are small insect-like autonomous robots that are aware of their environment. They have sensors that allow them to feel their way around obstacles. They also have audio sensors, so a loud hand clap will send them running.

They seem to be a commercial version of the breed known as BEAM robots. Here are some BEAM robots I made. If you modified these to use a small solar engine, they would be full-fledged BEAM robots.

HexBugs come in five shapes and colors and cost about $16 USD each. Shown here is the HexBug Bravo Green. You can also buy a Complete set of 5 of these micro-robotic insects for $50 USD.

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Early Paul Spooner - Frustrated Felines on Ebay

A master of the contemporary automata art form, Paul Spooner, is known for his ingenious and artful automata. His work is available at the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre shop and can also be seen at The Fourteen Balls Toy web site.

Shown here is an early Spooner design entitled Frustrated Felines that is currently available on eBay. It's cool to see the label that is on the underside of the piece.

Here's the eBay listing for Frustrated Felines that also features an article on Paul Spooner.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Build Hidden Compartments into Wooden Drawers

How hidden wooden drawers workThis post may seem a little off-topic, but I'm going to justify it because a) it's about woodworking, b) it's mechanical in nature, and c) it's just plain cool.

Who doesn't love trap doors and hidden compartments?

This is a short, but useful article describing a few different ways to build hidden compartments into chests, bureaus, jewelry boxes, or even cabinets built into a wall.

Here's the article on Building Hidden Drawers courtesy of

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Waiting Machine Finger-Tapping Automaton

I have seen the tapping finger automaton done in a variety of ways, though none as artfully as this one by Chris Eckert.
• Here is a paper hand animation kit you can make
• Here is a two-handed wooden automaton from New Zealand
Check out more art by Chris Eckert on his web site.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hand-Cranked Mechanical Atom-Smacker Device

Brad Litwin created this amazing hand-cranked contraption out of acrylic, brass, and steel. Actually, the word "contraption" doesn't do justice to its careful engineering and precise movements. It's hard to see early in the video, but that swinging arm is rapidly picking up, moving, and dropping a small ball-bearing. As the video progresses, you get to see every angle of this beautifully crafted machine.

From the YouTube description:
"Brad's first attempt to subvert the limits of the known universe. Over a period of use, the device has been utilized for the continuous abuse of countless atomic structures. However, to date, no discernible affect on our own temporal-spacial domain has been observed. Unit is approx. 8" x 4" x 4"high, made of acrylic, brass and steel."

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Reader Contribution: Wacking Jimmy the Rat!

Dedicated reader of The Automata / Automaton Blog, Tony Anagnostopoulos, has sent in this video of his latest creation. Good concept and good fun!

For more on making a wood automaton yourself, check out the books I have placed on The Automata / Automaton Store.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Magic Decapitation Automaton by Artist Zdenka

Swiss artist, Zdenka, is apparently known for her work in making fully functional limited edition automata in the style of the 1800s. There does seem to be a lot of detail and workmanship this magic-themed automaton. I have seen antiques that perform this same trick. The listing says she uses rare doll bodies to make up these pieces.

This Magic Decapitation Automaton is currently open for bids on eBay.

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Mr. Machine Collectible Robot Toy Patent

Mr. Machine technical drawingThe following is the patent abstract for the classic mechanical toy known as Mr. Machine. The full patent has several drawings and a lot of descriptive text.

Patent No.: 3,050,900
Category: TOY
Inventors: Marvin L Glass and Leonid Kripak
Date Filed: Dec. 28, 1959, Ser. No. 862,208

This invention relates generally to, and has for its principal object, an animated toy. More particularly, the invention relates to, and has for a further object, a mobile toy including a construction and arrangement of the parts which can be readily assembled and disassembled, which resembles a mechanical man incorporating various interest attracting features, and which are generally fabricated of translucent, differently colored plastic materials so that a fascinating mechanical, multicolored activity is observed during operation of the top.

A still further object of the invention is the provision of a toy of the type described which is of inexpensive construction, which has educational value in developing the mechanical skill of a child through assembly, disassembly and operation of the toy, and which will attract and maintain the attention of children over an extended period of time.

Mr. Machine Toy PhotographI guess patents are not intended to sound fun. But Mr. Machine is fun! So, I'll leave it to the marketing copyrighters to convince you...

"1960's authentic Mr. Machine! An early robot collectible toy manufactured using original molds! Rolling, spinning, ringing, squawking fun! Take Mr. Machine apart & put him back together! Includes authentic numbered Mr. Machine & his "toy wrench," DVD, Replica of US Patent Certificate, Numbered Certificate of Authenticity, Collector's Manual."

You can order the Mr. Machine robot gear toy online.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hand-Cranked Musical Head by Aaron Kramer

From the Artist:
"I made the little guy with the bakelite nose so that when you spun the paint can lid the music box would play. Then I figured there was another way to get the thing spinning around. A horizontal crank shaft of course!"

Check out Aaron Kramer's work on his web site.

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K'NEX Exploring Machines Set - Builds 30 Models

The more I look these days, the more great engineering toys I find. I would have loved this as a kid. Heck, I would love it now.

This is the K'NEX Exploring Machines Set. It contains 1,460 pieces and color-coded building instructions to build 30 different models. One really cool thing about this set is that it is so big, you can build 4 of each model type simultaneously. While I am guessing that this feature is targeted at educators, I think this increases the set's play-potential dramatically.

The models demonstrate the following mechanical devices:
• 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class levers
• Fixed, movable, compound, and block & tackle pulley systems
• Wheel and axles with the force applied to wheel and axle
• Inclined planes, screws, and wedges
• Spur, crown, sprocket, rack and pinion, transmission, and differential gear systems
The set comes in a plastic storage case with dividers and lock-on transparent lid.

Here's the K'NEX EDUCATION Exploring Machines set at Amazon.
Here is the K'NEX Exploring Machines Set at Edmund Scientifics.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Collector Beware: Fake Monkey Automaton Details

Automata are intricate and complex, a blend of engineering and artistry. It's hard to imagine that they could be faked. But,whether contemporary or antique, automata are valuable. And where there is money, there are counterfeits.

Below is information from a forum post written back in 2002 regarding a phony monkey automaton. The post was written by Jere Ryder of AutaMusique, Ltd. in Summit, NJ.

He reports that in recent years there has been an influx of deceptively old-looking automata into the international marketplace. These are not restored pieces, but fakes.

These automata have some elements in common:

1 - They are purposely constructed so as to prevent internal inspection.

2 - Most have a fairly large, old-looking maker's label glued to the rear panel. Some of these are quite ingenious and convincing.

3 - A variety of older materials may be used in the automaton, but hidden parts contain modern materials such as new pine, particle-board, and modern synthetic fibers.

4 - Many are driven by a simple, small, 1-tune, 18-note Sankyo musical movement.

Here is the link to the original article on the Fake Monkey Automatons.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Simple Machines Kit Teaches about Mechanics

Simple Machines KitThis clever kit includes everything you need to make simple machines: a variable lever, a wheel and axle, an inclined plane, a pulley and a wedge.

The kit includes a worksheet with diagrams and exercises to accompany hands-on building activities. There's also a 38 minute video, which explains how to construct and use the machines, and how to calculate the mechanical advantage of each machine.

I think I need to get this!

Here's the link to the Simple Machines Kit.

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Make A Snake Mechanical Wooden Automaton Kit

Make A Snake Mechanical Wooden Automaton KitI've been finding a lot of fun mechanical toys and gadgets over at lately. Most recently, I was delighted to discover this wood automaton kit of a snake in motion.

From Edmund Scientifics:
"The handle turns the cam shaft and the eccentric shaped cams push the rods up. This shows how a circular turning motion can be converted into an up-and-down movement. The cams can be repositioned on the shaft to change the movement of the snake."

The kit comes complete with everything your need to build the automaton except a screwdriver to put it together. Here is a 16-Piece Precision Screwdriver Set with everything you might need for delicate projects.

Here's the product page for the Make A Snake Mechanical Wooden Automaton Kit.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dug North Automaton Plans Bootlegged on eBay?

Bootleg Dug North Automaton Plans
Well, I honestly don't know whether to be flattered or indignant. A good reader of The Automata / Automaton Blog alerted me to the fact that someone on eBay is trying to auction off plans for my Training for Christmas automaton. Above is a screen shot of the listing.

I suppose if someone is willing to sell bootleg plans of my work (at least that's what they seem to be), I've reached a whole new level of fame. Perhaps these are actual pages from the magazine, which may be legit to sell. It's kind of hard to tell.

Woodcraft issue with automaton plansThe plans are from an article I wrote for Woodcraft Magazine's Holiday 2005 issue. The article describes how to make the piece step-by-step with some plan drawings and many color photographs.

If you would like these plans, I would recommend simply buying a back issue of Woodcraft, which includes my article and dozens of other holiday-themed projects.

I may consider republishing the project (with my own images) at a future date. (I need to review my own agreement.)

Here's a link to Woodcraft's site where you can order the Woodcraft Magazine's Holiday 2005 Issue.

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Automaton by Paul Spooner: Dummies with Ale

Paul Spooner automaton of many men with beer bottles
Titled Intermittent motion from two cams arranged as an 'AND' gate this is one of several new pieces by Paul Spooner.

Of this piece he says:
"I have been trying to get a good title and decided yesterday on;
Intermittent motion from two cams arranged as an 'AND' gate. This avoids any mention of the dummy scene but has the virtue of
describing the mechanism that makes the fifth dummy from the left look at his watch every so often. I was going to give them different things to hold, the names of all of them challenging to the ventriloquist: eg. beach ball, poppadom, marmalade, pineapple but went for seven traditional bottles of beer (labeled "beautiful beer bottled by british brewers"). They are a bit like the bottles of bass in Manet's bar of the folies bergere, which was painted ten years before the invention of the crown cap - hence the corks (but really I think they would have had hard rubber stoppers)."

This and many other photographs with commentary of new pieces by Paul Spooner can be seen on this page.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Hover Crafts Lighthouse with Magnetic Levitation

Hover Crafts Lighthouse with Magnetic LevitationOriginally designed and patented by a physicist, The Hover Crafts Lighthouse uses magnetic levitation to create an nifty kinetic model.

The horizontal shaft is held in mid-air by magnetic levitation. The lack of friction allows the propeller to rotate for a long time.

Each piece is carved from Mahogany wood and has been tuned.

Here is the Spinning Lighthouse at Edmund Scientifics.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Man Behind the Magic: A Profile of John Gaughan

John Gaughan and The Turk

Image by Natasha Calzatti for The New York Times

The New York Times has done a profile on automata and magic prop expert John Gaughan. Here he is shown with a recreation of the famous hoax automaton know as The Turk.

Here is the link to the New York Times article on John Gaughan.

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Hand-Cranked Barrel Piano Automaton by Hicks

Hand-Cranked Barrel Piano Automaton by HicksTake a look at this hand-cranked barrel roll piano automaton selling today on eBay. The seller says that it is attributed to George Hicks and dates to around 1850.

Here are some of the details of this piece: 17 key piano with 3 bells, plays 6 songs, original barrel, original mechanics, some original figures, surface of the music box is original, in various woods, original hand crank and hardware.

The mechanisms are in working order, though the keys in are in need of tuning. I love the fact that it is hand-cranked.

The eBay listing has many more photos including close-ups of the figures, the mechanism, and the backside of the piece.

Here is the eBay listing for the Hand-Cranked Barrel Piano Automaton by Hicks.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mechanical Toys Overview Multimedia CD

Mechanical Toys Overview Multimedia CDA dedicated reader of The Automata / Automaton Blog, has passed along info about this multimedia educational CD-ROM about mechanical toys.

Basic Principles of Mechanisms
Structured to encourage students to conduct their own investigations into the basic principles of mechanisms, this learning aid covers:
Mechanical Toys
* Types of motion
* Cams and followers
* Levers and linkages
* Pulley systems
* Gear systems
* Technical vocabulary

Mechanical Toys Overview Multimedia CD screen shotEducational Models
Combining these topic areas with detailed analyzes of 21 real-life automata, Focus on Mechanical Toys delivers a comprehensive educational package that's equally useful as a teaching aid, learning resource or research tool.

Interactive Animations
High quality 3D animations are available in addition to the photographic images, written descriptions and videos of each toy's mechanical structure. Each animation can be paused at any time and the on-screen image copied and pasted into a word processing or DTP program for inclusion in students' design folders.

They offer a free download demo on their site -- with some functionality disabled. Much can be learned from the free demo (Windows only).

Here is the product page for the Mechanical Toys Overview Multimedia CD.

Note: You might also consider's Mechanisms Offline download.

[Thanks bhaaluu!]

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Intriguing 19th Century Automaton Pocket Watch

19th Century Quarter Hour Automaton Pocket WatchWith an estimated value between $4,000.00 - $6,000.00 USD, this tasteful pocket watch is described as a mid 19th Century quarter-hour automaton repeater pocket watch with male and female bell ringer figures. The listing says that the watch is probably Swiss-made and that it comes with the attached winding key.

If it is Swiss, I am a little confused by the Chinese or Japanese characters on the back side of the key (see second image on eBay). Intriguing.

The watch is being sold on eBay on May 20th, 2008. Here is the listing for the 19th Century Quarter Hour Automaton Pocket Watch.

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Poisoned Milk - a Classic Paul Spooner Automaton

Here's a great little video of an classic Paul Spooner piece called Poisoned Milk.

The means of animating the tongue is very clever and requires some lateral thinking. See if you can figure it out.

Visit Cabaret Mechanical Theatre and Fourteen Balls Toy Co. to see more Paul Spooner automata.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mozart from Scrap-Made Mechanical Glockenspiel

Perhaps you recall the programmable Gloggomobil music machine I wrote about. Here is a related and remarkable DIY project...a weight-driven automatic glockenspiel made from assorted recovered materials. Well done!

From the YouTube Description:
"Andante Grazioso" (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / KV331) played by a "Mechanical Music Box in a Drawer" made from recycling materials found in electronic-waste, bulky trash and at home.

To learn more about mechanical music, check out this post about The Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments.

[Thanks bhaaluu!]

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

$12,000 French Harp Player Automaton c. 1870

French Harp Player Automaton from 1870I don't have much to say about this other than it must be a both amazing and creepy to see this rather expensive automaton in motion.

From the eBay listing:
"Musical automaton, French, 1870, purchased from Theriault's, cost was $12,000, harp has been restrung by Classic Tin Toy Co., beautiful working order, the hands move across the harp, the head turns back and forth, the eyelids move, as well as the mouth..."

Here the link to the full the eBay listing for French Harp Player Automaton.

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Tinguely's Dream, Electro-mechanical Automaton

The Automata / Automaton Blog is pleased to present you with a special sneak preview of Tom Haney's new work. The piece is named Tinguely's Dream after one of his favorite kinetic artist, Jean Tinguely.

The automaton features a figure riding a strange and wonderful bike. As seen in the video above, an electric motor powers 3 non-concentric wheels and gives the bike and its rider a gentle rocking motion. Watch someone riding a bike and you'll appreciate this beautiful subtlety.

Tom Haney is working on similar pieces for an upcoming gallery show at Mason Murer Fine Art in Atlanta. The show opens September 26th, 2008 and runs through November 7th, 2008. He plans to have 10 to 12 electro-mechanical pieces. Most of the pieces will incorporate antique and/or found objects as well as electric lights.

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German Musical Clown and Dog Act Automaton

Clown and Dog Act AutomatonHere is a German-made automaton currently available on eBay.

As you turn the hand-crank the music plays and the poodles climb over the top of the ladder. The clown moves his head back and forth and moves his arm back and forth with the wand. The seller says the piece features glass eyes, is from the 1880s, and is in good working order.

Here is the eBay listing with additional photographs of the Musical Clown and Dog Act Automaton

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Paper Mechanism Multi-pack Downloads Kits

Paper Mechanism Downloads KitsRob Ives over at Flying Pig has created a pack of three models for one price.

If you are interested in paper engineering or paper automata, this is a great value. It's also a great way to break into automata, requiring few tools and relatively little time.

The first is the gear model that uses only cardboard to make a fully working mechanism with two gears.

The second model is a working set of bevel gears made completely from card-stock paper.

Pump the paper bellows on the third model and the rotor spins.

Head over the download section of to check out this multi-pack kit and a ton of other well-designed paper automaton kits.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Rubber-Band Powered Kite Can Fly for 5 Minutes

I have posted recently about a rubber band powered flying ornithopter project and a book on rubber-band powered cars.

Apparently, the model plane kit shown here, called the Stringless Wonder, can fly up to a mile and remain airborne for 5 minutes. A mile? 5 minutes? On rubber band power? It's hard to believe. I guess I can shell out the $10 and find out!

Available as the Stringless Wonder at Edmund Scientific and PP-4 STRINGLESS WONDER KITE at For the lowest price ($7.95) check out the Stringless Wonder at SK Science Kits.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Coin-Operated English String Magic Trick Machine

Coin-Operated String Magic Trick AutomatonThis is another magic-related piece going to auction today, May 11th 2008.

This appears to be a coin-operated magic trick. It clearly involves string, so I am guessing that it performs some type trick in which the string is cut into two and then restored to a single string again. Just a guess.

We do know that this machine was made by Bryans Works from Kegworth, Derby, England. There is a scrolling text window to explain what is happening during the trick. The machine requires an old (English) penny (the large ones) so must be of some age. The mechanism looks very clean. I'd love to see a video of the trick being performed.

There are many close-up photographs of the various parts of this piece and its mechanism on the eBay listing for this Coin-Operated String Magic Trick Automaton

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Chinese Magician Automaton by Mueller circa 1895

Chinese Magician Automaton by Mueller Here is a very nice looking piece going to auction today -- May 11th, 2008.

I am not sure what trick the magician performs, but the piece looks to be in fantastic shape. The seller writes that this is an automaton by Adolphe Mueller of Germany from circa 1895. It is in working condition. The piece stands 80cm high.

Given the cone in the magician's hand, I would assume that an item on the the table either disappears or is transformed into another item altogether.

I am impressed with the clothing and fabrics on this piece. This must have been in a a carefully maintained collection.

Here is the eBay listing for the Chinese Magician Automaton by Mueller

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Mythical Automata Shop: THE HOUSE OF SYBIL

Maria and Michael start have just competed this piece for an upcoming exhibition.

From the Artists:
"The building itself is a living entity with an eye for its sight and a heaving floor for breath. The cellar imprisons innocence, whilst for those on the first floor conventional life has departed with the knife. Within the shop the Alchemist works with complete precision of word and deed. Like a watchmaker, he first re-assembles the spirit, and then the careful application of electrical fluence allows the invigoration of the automata, which you see for sale in the ground floor Salon of The House of Sybil."

This is one of 24 pieces that will form the exhibition in the Elissa Cristall Gallery opening on the 23rd of May, 2008.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Antique DIY Folk Art Automaton Project circa 1900

Vintage Folk Art Automaton Project circa 1900Here is an incomplete automaton for sale on eBay. While this would be a rather pricey, do-it-yourself project, much of the work is done and the materials provided. The seller even shares a vision for the completed piece. I find this to be an interesting concept: vintage one-of-a-kind DIY.

From the Seller's Description:
"The main figure of a man is articulated on his right side, at the shoulder, elbow and wrist. He is articulated on the left side at only the shoulder and elbow. He is whittling a piece of wood with a real metal knife. I believe he originally paused and lifted the object to examine it, then continued. He may have first had a clockwork movement but when I received it, someone had attempted to operate him with an old clock motor and an old porcelain electrical on off switch appearing to be from the very early 1900's."

The seller is offering the piece with many parts, a curved glass front, and a gear motor to power the automaton.

Here's the eBay listing with many photographs of the vintage woodcarver automaton project

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Video of the Mysterious Chess-playing Automaton

I wrote recently about the Clockwork Game, the amazing graphic novel about The Turk.

Here is video footage of the mysterious chess-playing automaton created in 1770 by Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen.

For more details about The Turk you might check out:
Bibliography from Clockwork Game web site.

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Graphic Novel about The Turk Chess Automaton

Clockwork Game: The Illustrious Career of a Chess-playing AutomatonClockwork Game is a graphic dramatization of the historical events surrounding a famous automaton known as The Turk. Constructed by Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen, The Turk amazed audiences for decades on several continents by playing (and besting) many human competitors at the game of chess. Or, did it...?

Written and illustrated by Jane Irwin, a new installment of Clockwork Game is available every Thursday. Not only is this true story captivating, it is well-illustrated in a crosshatched pen-and-ink style. The graphic novel will ultimately be available in many formats including print.

Here is where you can read Clockwork Game and learn more about The Turk.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Mechanical Toys: How Toys & Automata Work

Mechanical Toys: How Old Toys Work Here's a good book for you: Mechanical Toys: How Old Toys Work, by Athelstan and Kathleen Spilhaus (New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1989).

The line between automata and toys has never been clear, but the principles of engineering that animate them have always been the same. This book explores how mechanical toys work.

The chapters survey the history of toys, material types, methods of construction, sound producing devices, and energy delivery systems. While not overly detailed in its technical descriptions, the reader gets a chance to see many black-and-white and color photographs of exposed toy and automata mechanisms.

Keep an eye out for this one. You may be able to get Mechanical Toys: How Old Toys Work second-hand at a book sale or at Amazon.

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