Automata: Engineering for a Post-Oil World?


Written by Sharing Sustainable Solutions

Our fascination with sophisticated technology lies at the core of many of our present-day problems. Yet, it need not be. By definition, technical virtuosity doesn’t need to result in yet another electronic gadget or an even faster accelerating sports car. It can also lead to stunning yet completely harmless artefacts called “automata”.

These are mostly hand-cranked machines that can be extremely complex, often with the only purpose of astonishing the spectator. Automata have been built for more than 2,000 years, but contemporary artists have elevated the craft to a higher level. Aside from their emotional value, automata offer a glimpse of a future, post-oil technology.

Above: Ludvik Cejp.



There is a lot to say about the history of automata, but it is the modern work that deserves attention. Contrary to the examples that can be found in museums and old documents, present-day automata do not try to hide their internal mechanisms. The purpose of an automaton is no longer to make a mechanical copy of reality. Today, builders of automata want to evoke emotions, they want to make us dream.

Cloud detail arthur ganson Automaton above : Arthur Gansen.

The often fragile combination of gears, wheels and wires, as well as the sounds they make, are now an important part of the whole. Yet, automata are no Rube Goldberg machines, in which the mechanisms have been made needlessly complex. The mechanism of an automaton can be extremely elaborate, but never needlessly so. The makers of automata are not mocking technology, they are celebrating it.


However, they celebrate another kind of technology than the one we have grown accustomed to. Automata make use of very simple materials, often wood and/or iron. Some contain scavenged materials. Most automata are hand-cranked, some are driven by wind, water or a small electric motor. None of them incorporate electronics. Embodied and operational energy use are almost zero.

Automata graham lane Automata by Graham Lane.

Medieval millwrights

Automata show that stunning complexity and sophisticated technology can go hand in hand with the simplest of materials and the lowest possible energy use. In other words, they prove that engineers can still really let themselves go in a post-oil world.

Sisyphos  Above: Ludvik Cejp.

On a purely technical level, the building of automata requires an ingenuity which is closely related to that of a medieval millwright. These builders of watermills, windmills and lifting devices also succeeded in constructing machines which performed many diverse, complex and precise operations with the use of very basic materials and limited energy sources.

This analogy is interesting, because contrary to watermills, windmills and human powered cranes, automata have been developed further throughout the twentieth century. This means that they can teach us some unique things when it comes to designing future technologies.

Automaton fourteen balls toy Automata by Fourteen Balls Toy. Picture above: “The banana ripener“.

Enough said. Automata should be watched when they come alive. Pictures and words don’t do them right. For the layman, it’s hard to conceive how one simple twist of a hand crank can launch so many different movements at often unpredictable time intervals. Check out the videos and links below.


Carlos Zapata (more works)



Keith Newsteadt (more works)



Arthur Ganson (more works)


Don’t miss this one


Mexican-birds-250-4Links :


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Chris fitch 

Above: Chris Fitch.

Originally posted @ Sharing Sustainable Solutions


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