French musical automaton, ‘L’Avocat’ (The Lawyer), 1895-1905
L’Avocat – Made by Unknown (person) in France, c.1900
This is an automaton, a mechanical figure in the form of a barrister, which was made to move as if spontaneously through a concealed clockwork mechanism. Made around 1900, the barrister stands pompously behind a podium, opening and closing his mouth, blinking, tilting his head and moving his arms up and down, brandishing a written document. The device reveals its main purpose, to entertain, by producing music rather than spoken words.
While its maker is unknown, this musical barrister is very similar to automata designed and made by Henri Phalibois in Paris, France, from 1895. This unsigned automaton (bearing the numbers 36 and 665, but not the initials HP) is probably a copy by another French maker.
People have been making human-shaped string-controlled puppets for about 4000 years. Around 2000 years ago, Hero of Alexandria created a musical theatre programmed with strings and pulleys and incorporating moving human figurines. And 800 years ago Ismail Al-Jazari made a group of automata that played a harp, a flute and two drums, all programmed by a pegged drum. The barrister automaton sits within this long tradition of entertainments shaped like humans and moved mechanically.
What makes us human? The puppets and automata arose from this question, and they prompt us to continue asking it. Beyond our form, the answer encompasses thinking, speaking, writing, teaching, making music, inventing, drawing, crafting ? and self-awareness. The three most accomplished 18th century automata have human form, embody inventiveness and craft, and mirror another of these actions. Made by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, one writes, one draws, and one plays piano. The barrister, made over 100 years later, can only mime speaking. Perhaps he is a clever advocate of his clients’ rights, but we can’t be sure as he lacks a voice and appears suspiciously theatrical, with large eyes, red lips and flamboyantly curled wig. Perhaps he is a buffoon.
In the early years of the 19th century, Mary Shelley created the character of Frankenstein’s monster, making us question how wisely we employ our inventiveness. The impulse that led people to create automata with human form has led to many useful humanoid robots, but robots have made many people redundant and we wonder which jobs will disappear next. Some thinkers picture a future in which justice is dispensed by rules-based machines totally lacking in humanity, but the automaton barrister does not take us there. After all, it was intended to stand in a shop window, advertising the services of a flesh-and-blood barrister, and its theatrical appearance was intended to ensure its visibility.
Musical automaton, barrister standing behind podium, papier mache / textile / wood / metal / glass, maker unknown, Paris, France, 1895-1905
Physical Description . . . Read More … Full Story