Like a puppet on a string

The Hallenstein Brothers automaton. Photo: Toitū Otago Settlers Museum
The Hallenstein Brothers automaton. Photo: Toitū Otago Settlers Museum
It wasn’t quite AI, but early automatic machines could still cause quite a stir, writes Peter Read.

In the 19th century mechanical figures became a popular source of amusement and entertainment. Some could be seen here in Dunedin as part of touring stage acts and exhibitions. When Bachelder’s Colossean Pantascope came to Dunedin’s Masonic Hall in December 1873, for example, the performance concluded with "the feats of the wonderful automatic slack-rope vaulter". Advertising for the show claimed the mechanical automaton to be "the most wonderful piece of mechanism ever produced".

In 1887 an electrical figure known as Ali, which had been developed in England, became the latest automaton to delight Dunedinites when it began operating six times daily opposite the Queen’s Theatre in Princes St. During his act, Ali "read" the Koran, engaged in sword play, wrote on a glass tablet, and played a tambourine and other musical instruments.

A couple of years later at the 1889-90 British and South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin at least two automata could be found on display. A local firm of dentists exhibited a mechanical head, whose front teeth kept magically dropping out and then putting themselves back in place. Meanwhile at a tobacco stand, another automaton could be seen chain smoking a particular brand of cigarettes and blowing smoke rings as it exhaled.

Automata were also used by local shopkeepers to attract the attention of prospective customers. In May 1886 "the largest automaton figure in the colony" could be seen working at the Indian Tea Depot in Princes St. A mechanical figure of an old woman knitting appeared in the shop window of drapers Brown, Ewing and Co. in the lead up to Christmas in 1892. In the following year’s display, the old woman was replaced by a man playing a banjo, moving his legs and head about, and occasionally poking out his tongue.

Hallenstein Brothers’ New Zealand Clothing Factory was another local company that seems to have embraced automata, using an animated torso of a man to advertise ties, bows and scarfs.

Little is known about this well-dressed antique, which was donated to Toitū by descendants of Bendix Hallenstein in 1989. Perhaps by the time he went into service such displays were too commonplace and not newsworthy enough to catch the attention of the local press.

Where our animated fellow was originally made is unclear. The bulk of the late 19th and early 20th century automata makers were based in France. But were such things also being built here? It turns out that indeed they were.

In 1900 an Evening Star reporter was invited to the Rattray St workshop of John Jenkins, a medical electrician and all-round expert on things electrical, to view his latest creation — an automaton figure of a woman. When a button under a hearthrug in the little room where the demonstration took place was pressed, a spiral blind went up revealing the woman standing there "beautifully dressed in the latest fashion" and with a bouquet in her hand. She bowed and glided to the centre of the room. Turning to each person in the room in turn, she bowed again and again. Her movements backwards, forwards and sideways were accompanied by the turning of her head and the moving of her eyes. It was said that her movements were so natural that one could easily be persuaded that she were real. Later reports tell that the figure could also be made to offer round a full tray of glasses of wine and biscuits instead of floral bouquets and not spill a drop.

John Jenkins died a couple of years later, leaving his wondrous workshop to be carried on by Percy Commins. But the ultimate fate of Jenkins’ amazing android remains unknown.

Peter Read is curator, Toitū Otago Settlers Museum.