Loretta and I are fascinated by historical automata – those elaborate wonders of clockwork mechanics from the 18th and 19th centuries. (Long-time readers of this blog will recall the Silver Swan, still swimming after more than 200 hundred years, and the twin Golden Elephants with the spinning rubies, as well as this description from La Belle Assemblee.) Automata represented the highest levels of ingenuity, craftsmanship, and imagination, and are as amazing today in the digital age as they must have been to their earlier audiences. They were favorites of royalty, extravagant toys for the king, queen, or emperor who truly did have everything.
This elegant lady – known as La Joueuse de tympanon (The Dulcimer Player) – is a stunningly beautiful example. Made in Germany by clockmaker Peter Kintzing and cabinetmaker David Roentgen, this automaton was presented to Queen Marie-Antoinette in 1785. The queen was enchanted, bought the piece at once, and had it placed in the Academy of Science.
I know the little dulcimer-player is only painted clockwork, but when she turns her head with that little side-long glance, I can't keep from thinking of everything she's seen in her long, long life. . . .
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.