An automaton (plural: automata) is a self-operating machine. The word is sometimes used to describe a robot, more specifically an autonomous robot.
Automata, from the Greek automatos, “acting of one’s own will, self-moving,” is more often used to describe non-electronic moving machines, however, especially those that have been made to resemble human or animal actions, such as the jacks on old public striking clocks, or the cuckoo and any other animated figures on a cuckoo clock.
The automata of ancient Egypt were intended as toys or tools for demonstrating basic scientific principles, including those built by Hero of Alexandria. When his writing on hydraulics, pneumatics, and mechanics were translated into Latin in the sixteenth century, Hero’s readers initiated reconstruction of his machines, which included siphons, a fire engine, a water organ, and various steam-powered devices.
The first recorded design of a humanoid automaton is credited to Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1495. The design of Leonardo's robot was not rediscovered until the 1950s. The robot, which appears in Leonardo's sketches, could, if built successfully, move its arms, twist its head, and sit up. It is not known if an attempt was made to build the device.
The beginning of modern automata was started with the bombastic opinion of Descartes when he suggested that the bodies of animals are nothing more than complex machines- the the bones, muscles and organs could be replaced with cogs, pistons and cams. Seventeenth-century France was the birthplace of those ingenious mechanical toys that were to become prototypes for the engines of the industrial revolution. Thus, in 1649, when Louis XIV was still a child, an artisan named Camus designed for him a miniature coach, and horses complete with footmen, page and a lady within the coach; all these figures exhibited a perfect movement. According to P. Labat, General de Gennes Constructed, in 1688, in addition to machines for gunnery and navigation, a peacock that walked and ate.
The world's first successfully-built biomechanical automaton is considered to be The Flute Player, invented by the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737. He also constructed a mechanical duck that could eat and defecate, seeming to endorse Cartesian ideas that animals are no more than machines of flesh.
In 1769, a chess-playing automaton called the Turk made the rounds of the courts of Europe, but in fact was a famous hoax, operated from inside by a hidden human operator.
Other Eighteenth Century automata makers include the prolific Frenchman Pierre Jacquet-Droz and his contemporary Henri Maillardet. Maillardet, a Swiss mechanician, created an automaton capable of drawing four pictures and writing three poems. Maillardet's Automaton is now part of the collections at The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.
Automata of this sort were also created in Japan and are known as Karakuri.
Contemporary automata continue this tradition with an emphasis on art, rather than technological sophistication. Contemporary automata are represented by the works of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in the United Kingdom and Dug North in the United States.
Also, an automaton is a mathematical model for a finite state machine, see automata theory.