Here is a nice article on the man behind the machine in the recently released movie, Hugo. The film features a drawing automaton and this article goes into some detail about George's inspirations for the figures that were used in the film.
From the Los Angeles Times article:
An automaton is a mechanical human being or animal that historically worked via clockwork mechanisms because it predated electricity and the electric motor. They were used by wealthy people as entertainment pieces that were brought out at functions, parties and gatherings. Ours had to appear to be gears that meshed together and clockwork drives driven by springs, although in actual fact there were 28 separate drive mechanisms and servo systems within the body just to perform all the functions.
He goes on to explain how they got the automaton to actually draw!
Here's a link to the article on the prop maker who created the automaton for the movie Hugo.
[ Thanks Aaron! ]