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Animation Notes #2
A Short History (part I)
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The word 'animation' is derived from anima, the Latin word for soul or spirit. The verb 'to animate' literally means 'to give life to'.

From his earliest artworks, hunting scenes sketched in ochre on a cave wall, to highly refined Greek sculptures, mankind has always attempted to imbue his art with expressions of life by depicting his subjects as if caught in a frozen moment in time suggestive of broader preceding and following actions.

Egotistical man placed himself at the centre of the universe. He has always believed in the possibility of creating life - of playing god. Man has used his technology as an agent to help realise this desire in order to become ruler of all nature.

History is rich with descriptions of attempts to imitate life by mechanical means in the form of hydraulic, pneumatic, or clockwork operated biological automata. Automata (or automatons - a machine which is relatively self-operating and capable of performing multiple complex movements on its own without the need for human control) had its greatest period of development following the rise of mechanicism with the revival of Greek culture during the Renaissance. There were, for example, isolated descriptions of talking heads claimed to have been constructed by Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Gerbert, and Robert Grosseteste. Perhaps of greater significance was the mechanical lion of da Vinci and the two automata created by Johannes Muller, called Regiomontanus (1436-1476). One of these was the fabled eagle which was claimed to have escorted the Emperor Maximilian to the city gates of Nuremberg.

The first android, a completely mechanical figure which simulated a living human or animal, operating with apparently responsive action, is believed to have been constructed by Hans Bullmann of Nuremberg (?-1535). Bullmann reportedly produced a number of extremely ingenious figures of men and women that moved and played musical instruments.

These early automata were mechanical devices that seemed to demonstrate lifelike behaviour. They took advantage not only of gears, but also of gravity, hydraulics, pulleys and sunlight - the effect could be dazzling, as with the extraordinary clock of Berne created in 1530. This massive timepiece hourly disgorged a dazzling pageantry of automata figures.

One of the most famous waterworks of the seventeenth century was that constructed at the chateau at Heilbrunn in about 1646. It featured various animated hydromechanical devices. A mechanical theatre was installed here in 1725 by Lorenz Rosenegge, a craftsman of Nuremberg. It featured 256 figures, 119 of which were animated by means of a single water turbine. A horizontal axis operating a series of cams regulated the movements of the figures by means of copper wires. The wheelwork consists of wooden wheels with iron teeth and pinions. A powerful hydraulic organ provides background music and covers the noise of the mechanism.

Just as the waterworks and grottoes of the Renaissance gardens were tangible revivals of the hydraulic and pneumatic devices of the ancient Greek culture, some of the same influence filtered into the field of clockmaking. The first conversion from the hydraulic and pneumatic to the purely mechanical automata, occurred in Europe with the advent of the clockmaker who made public and astronomical clocks with moving figurines.

It was a short step to a combination of the pinned cylinder and the spring-driven clockwork to provide the sound of living things and of musical instruments in automata. This combination made possible a great variety of developments in the late seventeenth and during the eighteenth centuries. The most notable of these were the androids constructed in the mid-eighteenth century by Jacques Vaucanson (1709-1782), who brought the production of automata to its highest point of development. Vaucanson is unquestionably the most import inventor in the history of automata, as well as one of the most important figures in the history of machine technology. Although he was responsible for pioneering in the development of machine tools and later inspired the work of Sir Henry Maudslay and others, it was, ironically enough, his automata -- which occupied the briefest interlude in his life -- which brought him permanent fame and fortune.

Born in 1709 in Grenoble, France, Vaucanson exhibited great mechanical ability at a very early age. After having attended the oratory college at Juilly he studied with the Jesuits at Grenoble, and in 1725 joined the order of Minims of Lyon. During his training period, however, Vaucanson indulged his mechanical interests by creating automatically flying angels. This impelled the provincial of the order to destroy his makeshift workshop, and Vaucanson used the incident as an excuse to to be relieved of his clerical vows.

Vaucanson moved to Paris and, in direct contrast with his recent religious life, gave himself up to a life of debauchery while he undertook the studies of mechanics, music, and anatomy. He developed an interest in the study of medicine and attempted to construct a "moving anatomy" which reproduced the principal organic functions. Debts, illness, and eventually boredom caused him to abandon the project. He went on to the construct his famous androids, which made him wealthy and famous throughout Europe.

In 1735 Vaucanson began to formulate plans for the construction of the first android, which was to be a life-sized figure of a musician, dressed in a rustic fashion and playing eleven melodies on its flute, moving the levers realistically by its fingers and blowing into the instrument with its mouth. In October 1737 the automaton was completed and exhibited first at the fair of Saint-Germain and later at Longueville. All Paris flocked to see the mechanical masterpiece with the human spirit; the press was extremely favorable, and Vaucanson was launched upon his career.

Vaucanson's third and most famous automaton was "an artificial duck of gilt brass which drinks, eats, flounders in water, digests and excretes like a live duck" (see figure top right). It was Vaucanson's intention to create in this duck the "moving anatomy" that he had visualized once before. Accordingly, the figure of the duck was produced full size of gilt brass in a simplified form, the body pierced with openings to permit the public to observe the process of digestion. The complexity of this duck was enormous - there were over four hundred moving pieces in a single wing.

Just as spring-wound clockwork made possible mechanical music for automata, it also made possible the reproduction of the sound of words by mechanical means. In the seventeenth century Kircher had affirmed that it was possible to produce a head which moved the eyes, lips, and tongue, and, by means of the sounds which it emitted, appeared to be alive. A similar project was attempted in 1705 by Valentin Merbitz, rector of the Kreuzschule of Dresden, who devoted five years to it. The next major advance in this field was made in about 1770 by Friedrich von Knauss of Vienna, who constructed four speaking heads. That his project was not completely successful is attested to by the fact that in 1779 the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg used the production of a successful speaking head as the theme for a contest for mechanicians and organ manufacturers, specifying that the machine be capable of speaking the five vowels. - The Turing Test of its day for clocksmiths and mechanical engineers?

The most spectacular of all automata that have survived until the present day are The Writer, The Artist, and The Musician produced by Pierre Jacquet-Droz (1771-1790) and his son Henry-Louis (1753-1791) of Geneva. Father and son combined all the technical developments known in their time in an effort to produce a machine that faithfully imitated a human being, and their efforts were as successful as any have ever been. The Writer, a life-size and lifelike figure of a boy seated as a desk, is capable of writing any message of up to 40 letters in length (above right).

"On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends" - Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1895.

Boilerplate Man and Steam Man - Amazing Robots of the Victorian Era - fact or fiction? You decide:

With a public fascination for the newly discovered force of electricity, fictional writing suggested that pieces of dead flesh sewn together could be 'animated' into life just as severed frog legs could be kicked into a reflex action by a crude battery in a science laboratory demonstration.

Having discarded the earlier technologies of hydraulics, pneumatics, clockwork, which where thought to hold the key, man continues his quest to create life through robotics and electronics, and with more abstract notions of life using computers to create artificial life (AI), autonomous systems, Celluar Automata and nanotechnology. Man now plays directly with the building blocks of life itself via genetic engineering

AIBO - Sony's Artificial Intelligence roBOt. AIBO means 'love' or 'attachment' in Japanese. Many AIBO owners enjoyed teaching their pets new behaviors by reprogramming them in Sony's 'R-CODE' language. However, in October 2001, Sony sent a cease-and-desist notice to the webmaster of of a programming hack site demanding that he stop distributing code that bypassed the copy prevention mechanisms of the robot. Whose life is it anyway? Read the protest: <click here> The AIBO was killed off by Sony in 2006.

Nowhere is this obsession to play god and create worlds and to populate them with artificial autonomous life forms more in evidence than in computer games such as "World of War Craft" and "Second Life".

Animators are also engaged in this same elusive quest.

Read on....

says dino...
"Seems humans have been animating things
a billion years before I was born"
A horse painted on the walls of Lascaux caves, northern slopes of the Pyrenees , South central France
A horse and wild cattle painted on the walls of Lascaux
A bison painted on the rock walls of the Upper Paleolithic Altamira caves in Cantabria, Spain
An ancient Egyptian frieze depicting an apparent sequence of images illustrating the dynamic poses as used by wrestlers.
  String operated figure kneading dough, Egypt, 2000 BC.
  Dancing dwarfs in ivory - Egypt - Middle Kingdom - 12th Dynasty. The figures move through the use of strings and a pulley. Found at Lisht during excavations in 1934
A mechanical Duck by Jacques Vaucanson circa 1730s "an artificial duck of gilt brass which drinks, eats, flounders in water, digests and excretes like a live duck"
The Writer - a mechanical doll made in carved wood by Jaquet-Droz in 1772 which had the ability to write. At 28 inches tall, it gave an unusual impression of life and was presented to every court in Europe. Some argue that it is the most perfectly developed automaton writer in the world.
Waltzing Couple - circa 1850 by Frenchman Alexandre Nicolas Theroude. Theroude started a wholesale toyselling company but after the 1830 Revolution which affected Parisian luxury industries, he shifted his focus away from making ordinary toys to become one of the foremost mechanical toy-makers in Paris applying his skill to the making of many large and magnificent automata.
The Modern Compendium of Miniature Automata by the Lycette Bros, Melbourne, Australia.
Mechanical automata is alive and kicking all over the Internet in the form of various kinetic artworks as well as cardboard and wooden kits and private automata commissions. The above is just one example of a cardboard kit which can produce sophisticated like-like movement.

Flying Pig Paper Animation Kits

Make your own Automata


Mechanical Theatre

Gallery of Automata

Automata - Agents of Life Within


The Role of Automata in the History of Technology - By Silvio Bedini


Automata Theory - David Weir

Cellular Automata - "Artificial Life : The Quest for a New Creation" - Steven Levy


Digital Immortality

Spooky programming stuff

Cellular Automata and the Edge of Chaos

Here are a few places you can go to read more about cellular automata and the idea that complex, interesting things happen on the edge of chaos, on the boundary between boring order and overwhelming disorder.

Steven Levy, Artificial Life.
Pantheon Books, 1992. An exciting, interesting book, written for a general audience. Read it. You'll find cellular automata, the edge of choas, emergence, and lots more.

M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos.
Simon and Schuster, 1992. Another well-written book for a general audience, concentrating on the Santa Fe Institute. The edge of chaos is a central idea.

Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for Laws of Self-organization and Complexity.
Oxford University Press, 1995. Kaufmann explains his ideas about how various forms of complexity, including life itself, can arise from simple rules. The "Edge Of Chaos" idea plays a large role in his thinking.

Christopher Langton, "Computation at the Edge of Chaos: Phase Transitions and Emergent Computation."
In Emergent Computation, edited by Stephanie Forest. The MIT Press, 1991. Pages 12-37. A technical paper in which Langton explains his investigation of one-dimensional cellular automata and discusses his "lambda" parameter.

Christopher Langton, editor, Artificial Life. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, 1989.
The procedings of the first artificial life workshop, held in 1987 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Technical papers. Includes an introductory survey by Langton of the field of artificial life.

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