Stuff of (Bad) Dreams, n. 4: The Dulcimer Player

Today, a bit about an object that provokes in me utter fascination and total discomfort. It’s the famous dulcimer player automaton of Marie-Antoinette.

Created in 1784, this android automaton, dressed in a fine lace gown with a pearl chocker, corset, and paniers, plays Gluck’s songs by striking the strings of the dulcimer with small hammers in its hands. Peter Kinzing, a German clockmaker, produced the mechanism; David Roentgen was responsible for the cabinetry. Marie-Antoinette purchased the automaton, then later donated it to the Académie des sciences. It is now located in the Musée des arts et métiers in Paris.

It really is a perfect example of Enlightenment science that aimed to instruct and entertain. The seamless and graceful movement of this automaton is nothing short of a technical miracle even today. But its extreme lifelikeness makes me feel so uneasy. It’s the same kind of nervous relationship we have with latest advances in artificial intelligence and android robots. Its mechanical perfectness and autonomy intimidate and unsettle..

It’s fascinating because it’s creepy. And that it fascinates me so much makes it even creepier.

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