In the (Uncanny) Valley of the Dolls

Restoring old automata—mechanical ancestors to robots—brings out the supernatural side of tech.

Brittany “Nico” Cox works on an automaton in her studio.
Brittany “Nico” Cox works on an automaton in her studio.
Ben Lindbloom

This essay is excerpted from Strange Frequencies by Peter Bebergal, published by Penguin/TarcherPerigree.

In an enormous Goodwill in Seattle, the horologist (a watchmaker and expert in related devices) Brittany “Nico” Cox and I sorted through a sad and somewhat creepy assortment of discarded and possibly once-loved dolls, hoping to find one with large, realistic glass eyes. Not merely a watchmaker, Nico specializes in restoring automata—clockwork-powered dolls and figures meant to mimic life. In gardens and grottoes of the Renaissance, moving statues became toys of the wealthy and would capture the popular imagination but by the 18th-century were incredibly complex horological wonders. Unlike robots, automata did not have practical use. They were meant to inspire both awe at our technological prowess and fear at the strange magic that many believed made them work.

Nico and I talked about how we were both a little mortified at the thought of having to smash a porcelain head to extract the eyes but were determined to get just the right ones for our deeply sacred task. I had come to Seattle in the hopes of learning something about the supernatural roots of artificial life, and in the days spent in Nico’s studio, I hoped that we might make a simple automaton.

Unfortunately, none of the dolls had the eyes we needed. Most were either too small or ridiculously large like Japanese anime characters’. There was something lifelike about all of them, though, and their haunted quality would take hold of me for the time Nico and I were together. Our last effort found us in Archie McPhee, a Seattle novelty shop that sells a huge assortment of strange and unique objects: rubber chickens, masks, plastic animals, gag gifts. On a shelf at the far end of the store, we discovered a box of dozens of eyes in assorted sizes made from a dark, hazy glass. After much sorting and searching, we found three sets of eyes that had the personality we were after: not quite lifelike but having the quality of, dare I say it, a soul. There was also something sad and disquieting about them. Life seemed possible within them, even though I knew rationally they were just pieces of colored glass.

On the drive back to her workshop, I asked Nico—one of the few and foremost horologists who repairs and restores antique automata—what she understands about this impulse to create life, or the semblance of life, and why it also threatens our sense of stability. For her, it presents itself as a series of questions: “What are the creative capacities in human beings versus God? What is it to be a part of a spiritual realm?” She explained, “If we can imagine it, can we create it? What are our creative and cognitive capacities as humans compared to a divine creator?”

What makes Nico special among people who work with and restore automata is that she can do all the things museums require many individual craftspeople to do. Here were various benches with hand tools, small drills, bookshelves, and, of course, Nico’s current automata repair jobs. No matter their size, there is a delicacy and vague melancholia dwelling in these objects as if they know they are incongruous with the world. Nico brought me over to a small workbench where she picked up and wound a small silver box by inserting a key. From the top, a little round door flipped open, out of which emerged a tiny bird that began to sing and flap its wings. Under a small bell jar was a similar unboxed bird that Nico was repairing. In a cabinet nearby, Nico showed me drawer after drawer of antique bird feathers she uses to restore these kinds of automata. She also presented the mechanism for one that was under repair, a compact clockwork movement with the addition of a tiny set of bellows that compresses air through a small whistle. A set of cams works to adjust the bellows to produce the birdsong. All this miniaturization and precision craftsmanship in order to produce a model of life astonished me. What was even more startling was seeing the mechanics of how the bird box functioned, and yet how readily I suspended my disbelief when Nico wound it up and the little singing bird emerged. The quality of being remained. I found that this wonderful mechanical object has its origins in our mythic consciousness, when magic and mechanics were believed to be part of the same natural principles.

There is the unique quality that comes about when the mechanism is completely hidden from view and the function is mysterious. It’s this response that Nico hopes to elicit, a sensation she believes can’t be produced by anything else other than automata: “This is a feeling that I think is experienced by everyone when they see an automaton, especially when they’re surprised by it.” Nico described the illusion of the automata being something more than what is immediately apparent. The mechanism for the tiny bird is obviously contained in the box, but it also seems impossible something so complex could be hidden. Moreover, when the bird pops out and begins its routine, nothing about it suggests it’s connected to a complex set of works. The mechanism of all these objects is essentially the same. A spring provides the energy, a gear train transmits the energy, and cams dictate the motion and movement of the automaton. The challenge in building and restoring an automaton is how to make the purely mechanical appear lifelike. As Nico explained, it’s a balance of “getting all the mechanical properties that have to be there to produce the minimum illusion, but then fleshing out the details that help it suggest the feeling.”

It was René Descartes in the 17th century who proposed that the human is also a clockwork mechanism, possessed of a spirit—the ghost in the machine—that was imbued with reason and will by God. Thus, who was to say that we could not create a mechanism with the same component parts? This idea would result in an explosion of automata, including a chess player, a fortune-telling magician, a flautist, and even a duck that ate a bit of food and excreted it. Descartes’ machine man shifted the ambivalent nature of the automaton away from superstitions about magic and toward more complicated questions about our own inherent divinity. Do we still hold a special place in God’s creation if we are merely nothing more than automata that can be simulated so easily by gears and bellows?

While Christianity posits that the imitation of God—imitatio dei—is to model one’s moral behavior, the 18th-century political philosopher and deist Thomas Paine proposed an extension of what it means to be like the creator: “The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom, and benignity of the Deity in his works, and in endeavoring to imitate him in everything moral, scientifical, and mechanical.” Paine was inspired by Isaac Newton, who had argued that the universe could be imagined as a great celestial clock, each part influencing the other as gears in the works.

A bird box designed by Nico Cox.
The bird box.
Nico Cox

This clockwork universe would also function as a metaphor that extends to God as the clockmaker, the timeless creator whose precision works can be seen not only in the heavens but in the very forms of nature, in the animal kingdom, and in the human body itself. Religious thinkers, however, fought to make sure the soul—and its accompanying moral obligations—did not get lost in the workings of God’s great clock. In 1802, the theologian William Paley amplified what had come to be known as the “watchmaker analogy.” Paley describes himself walking along a garden lane and coming across a watch in the grass. It’s easy to deduce that the watch didn’t grow out of the ground, Paley reflects. Something this complicated must have had a maker. Paley then goes on to look at the world around him: ants crawling with purpose, ancient trees rising toward the heavens, the sun warming the earth. How could these things, so much more complex than even a watch, not have had an intelligent maker also? In Paley’s vision, God surely made the universe, but he did not abandon it. It continues because he wills it, Paley notes. And God wills it because he loves the world.

With the increase of a scientific worldview, thinkers like Paine still believed there was a secret order to the universe, but one of a great machine, a clock, created by God like the clockmaker at his bench. Paine and other deists could not make Paley’s leap of faith. God had indeed made the world, but he took no interest in it, did not intervene on behalf of his creatures, and certainly did not act in history. Like a watch, God wound and set the universe on its way. But the human being, too, can become a creator, using essentially the same blueprint. Creating doesn’t invoke any supernatural agency, but the notion of the clockmaker God animated an activity like mechanics and other human technological endeavors.

With our glass eyes, we set out to build a simple automaton in Nico’s studio. Nico found a small piece of wood, about 6 square inches and one-eighth-inch thick. We drilled out holes for the eyes and glued them in on one side so they faced out the other. Nico wanted to emphasize not only the mechanical function of eyes opening and closing but the quality of life. She cut two small pieces of leather from some scrap in the shape of eyelids, and we glued them on. On the other side of the wood, we constructed a simple mechanism using springs and thread so that when a string was pulled below the device, the eyelids would slowly close and then open when the string was released. As we labored, the automaton began to resolve into something that looked both curiously alive and artificial. I could see what was artifice. Even though I had worked with Nico to build it, had come to understand the principles of simple machines that produced the desired effect, there still arose a quality of being that was undeniable. Partly this was imposed on the little figure by my expectation. But it was also because I had entered into a kind of craft, even as a mostly unhelpful assistant to Nico’s handiwork, that stretches back centuries. Making, as an activity, was not simply about the construction of our little automaton. We were fashioning it with our hands, with pieces of things cut, drilled, bent, glued, and repurposed, and, as Thomas Paine remarked, imitating God’s creative capacity. The uncanny still crept in, however: an unfinished face with two strange eyes staring out sleepily from soft leather lids.

Handling the materials and manipulating them toward a magical intent—in this case the creation of life, or the semblance thereof—clarified for me that the key to the relationship between technology and the supernatural is how the human element has inserted itself through hacking both materials and the imagination. The history of the automaton is one where a rational understanding of the natural world and mechanical technology conspire with the imagination to produce feelings of supernatural and magical significance. These feelings are not illusory or false. They arise out of an imperative to link our handiwork to the divine, to ensure that as technology seems to drive us further away from spiritual and magical realities that we rebel— we hack—by turning our devices and machines into methods of recovering what may be lost.

The cover of Strange Frequencies.

Reprinted from Strange Frequencies by Peter Bebergal, copyright (c) 2018. Published by TarcherPerigee, a division of Penguin Random House Inc.