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Androids in the Enlightenment

Mechanics, Artisans, and Cultures of the Self

The eighteenth century saw the creation of a number of remarkable mechanical androids: at least ten prominent automata were built between 1735 and 1810 by clockmakers, court mechanics, and other artisans from France, Switzerland, Austria, and the German lands. Designed to perform sophisticated activities such as writing, drawing, or music making, these “Enlightenment automata” have attracted continuous critical attention from the time they were made to the present, often as harbingers of the modern industrial age, an era during which human bodies and souls supposedly became mechanized.
In Androids in the Enlightenment, Adelheid Voskuhl investigates two such automata—both depicting piano-playing women. These automata not only play music, but also move their heads, eyes, and torsos to mimic a sentimental body technique of the eighteenth century: musicians were expected to generate sentiments in themselves while playing, then communicate them to the audience through bodily motions. Voskuhl argues, contrary to much of the subsequent scholarly conversation, that these automata were unique masterpieces that illustrated the sentimental culture of a civil society rather than expressions of anxiety about the mechanization of humans by industrial technology. She demonstrates that only in a later age of industrial factory production did mechanical androids instill the fear that modern selves and societies had become indistinguishable from machines. 

296 pages | 8 halftones, 4 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Culture Studies

History: European History, History of Ideas, History of Technology

Music: General Music


“Voskuhl tells the story of, for the most part, eighteenth-century automata: mechanical animals and human machines that once entertained the upper classes with their dizzying promise of a robotized future.”

Gizmodo's Notable Books of 2013

"Voskuhl’s Androids in the Enlightenment is a beautifully realized account of two unusual music-playing, human-formed automata. ambitiously, Voskuhl looks beyond economic utility and luxurious exteriors to the kind of subjectivity the figures performed. She explores the cultural agenda of sentimentality as social order to which the androids contributed and offers a persuasive answer to the question of why these elaborate curiosities were musicians. This is a book to be savored and a model for all who wish to escape the tyranny of the present or at least to temper its flattening powers."

German Studies Review

“Ingenious androids, mobile machines in the form of humans, are some of the marvels of eighteenth-century engineering. They have become the focus of a remarkable range of scientific, aesthetic, and literary enthusiasm. In this perceptive and highly original study, Adelheid Voskuhl unlocks the workings and meanings of two of the most celebrated of these machines, figures of female musicians now held in museums in Paris and in Switzerland. The book describes the world of the artisans who built these devices and of the performers whose musical artfulness they mimic. This is a fine and persuasive study that enriches our understanding of the pattern of industry and fashion at a key period of the transition to modern society, and opens a fresh perspective on the decisive relations between machinery, passion, and cultural life.”

Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge

“In her focused interpretive study of two famous female automata Adelheid Voskuhl captures the specificity and the tensions of Enlightenment culture. Sharply critical of standard interpretations that make these android automata harbingers of the anxieties of the machine age and industrialization, she places them squarely in the preindustrial period when a few elite workshops of master furniture builders and clockmakers still produced extraordinary show pieces for court society and equipped their mechanical musicians with the sentimental virtues of emerging bourgeois culture. Mechanical virtuosity and expressive sentimentality here play off one another to evoke challenging questions of the human-machine boundary and modern self-identity.”

M. Norton Wise, University of California, Los Angeles

“A fine-grained study with a bold argument: that the history of machines and the history of emotions are deeply connected. Adelheid Voskuhl breaks apart hackneyed associations of ‘man and machine’ by looking at women and machines in the context of music, artisanal industry, and Enlightenment culture. After you spend time with the piano-playing automata featured in this book, you will never see androids in the same way again.”

Rosalind Williams, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

“This deeply researched study restores Enlightenment automata to their original context of princely courts, protoindustrial craftsmanship, and bourgeois sentiment—and explains how automata later came to stand for industrial machinery, mechanical theories of organic life, and fatally accurate simulacra of human beings in the philosophy and literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Adelheid Voskuhl’s panoramic study is a model of how the history of technology can illuminate cultural and intellectual history.”

Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1 Introduction: Androids, Enlightenment, and the Human-Machine Boundary
2 The Harpsichord-Playing Android; or, Clock-Making in Switzerland
3 The Dulcimer-Playing Android; or, Furniture-Making in the Rhineland
4 The Design of the Mechanics; or, Sentiments Replicated in Clockwork
5 Poetic Engagement with Piano-Playing Women Automata
6 The “Enlightenment Automaton” in the Modern Industrial Age



American Philosophical Society: Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History

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