Infrequently Asked Questions – Answered by Paul Spooner.
1) How long does it take to develop the mechanics for each piece?
Speaking personally, the mechanics take just as long to develop as the sculptural parts and both are finished when the thing works reliably a few times. The mechanism and the figurative part of an automaton are bound up with each other in that for example, the working parts of an automaton (arms, legs, etc.) are often part of a mechanical linkage or transmission.
When I start work on a machine I have an aim in mind – usually it’s a weakish joke or a play on words – and a mechanical solution. Sometimes the mechanical element is integral to the piece.
Whichever way the top jackal moves, the lower one follows because of the mechanical linkage uniting them. Arms and legs look like arms and legs but they are also levers and linkages.
2) Can one certain type of mechanism power more than one set of movements?
Yes. One of the commonest mechanisms used in automata is the camshaft. This shaft (or axle) can be rotated by clockwork, electric motors or a hand crank. The cams on the shaft are discs with profiles that are shaped to displace levers or operate switches. Each cam controls a different part of the machine.
It’s also possible to make a machine which accepts different camshafts so that it performs different actions. In this way, the camshaft can also be seen as a computer program. The Writer (one of 3 famous automatons by Jaquet-Droz uses this method to write different messages)
Mechanisms are often tied together in some way so that they do more than one thing. In fact, it’s often essential for the timing.
As an example the anteater and the ant have to stay in synchronization. The ant exits one door of the anthill, passed under the tongue of the anteater and enters the second door. The anteater’s tongue pops out just as the ant has passed. This always happens this way because the mechanism of the ant and the anteater are geared together and driven by the same source of power.
3) What sort of materials do you build with? Wires? Wood? Household items?
Here’s a list of the stuff I’ve used within recent memory: Bronze powder, glass balls, steel, tinplate, brass, copper, all sorts of wood (except balsa), bamboo, water, rubber, leather, string, all sorts of plastic. Also, some mechanical parts taken from other machines: motors, gears, bearings, springs. Typewriters, cash registers and photocopiers are full of useful bits.
4) Do you consider automata forms of robots?
I haven’t thought of automata and robots being related very much but I have made an automaton robot. That is, I used a robotoid figure in the same way I’d use a humanoid or jackaloid figure. The thing is that there is a category of robot that is a serious device with a fixed purpose such as spraying paint or defusing bombs.
The kind of things I make are essentially frivolous or at best, non-useful items. I could foresee myself using a paint spraying robot in my work but as a personality rather than as a functional device. Of course, all this depends on how you define robots and automata. The essential thing is that an automaton tells a story and uses figures as characters whether they are robots or broccoli-headed camels. So, I consider robots as forms of automata – sometimes.