Transnational History of Clockwork Automata: Karakuri Ningyō and the Art of Artificial Life

René Descartes wondered if people he observed through his window are just machines in hats and coats. One type of clockwork automata in Japan, dashi karakuri, were carried during religious festivals as vessels for deities (kami). The philosophical and scientific paradigm of Descartes’ contemporaries was shaped by the clockwork mechanism. In Japan, like in Europe, humanoid and animaloid automata reflected and affected the understanding of organic life. The ancestors of contemporary robots, clockwork automata, enchanted the people in Europe and Japan during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with their lifelike movements. Although they had common origin – the clockwork mechanism – Japanese automata, karakuri ningyō (mechanical dolls), remained a unique techno-cultural phenomenon until the modernisation at the end of the nineteenth century when most karakuri masters shifted to making telegraphs and steam locomotives. This talk presents a transnational history of clockwork automata with focus on Japan, discussing these clockwork wonders as a multifaceted historical phenomenon that shaped and was shaped by medical science, natural philosophy, spirituality, and popular culture. A transnational consideration of clockwork humanoid automata will show the heterogeneous attitudes toward organic and artificial life that emerged from the universal clockwork mechanism hidden behind cultured mechanical bodies.