Research Stream


Elizabeth Stephens
Southern Cross University

The Mechanics of Emotion: Eighteenth-Century Automata and the Construction of an Affective Public Sphere

This project examines the development, construction and public exhibition of humanoid automata during the eighteenth century. It will examine the role of their performance and display in the construction of an affective public sphere, and consider whether their exhibition represents the transformation of an early modern theory of the passions (as dynamic forces) into a modern theory of the emotions (as a signifying system). In so doing, it will bring work on the history of the emotions into closer dialogue with contemporary scholarship on affect theory.

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From the mid 1650s to the end of the 1700s, humanoid automata ‒ figures that looked lifelike and could mechanically perform feats such as playing music, drawing pictures or writing phrases ‒ were exceedingly popular objects of public display. Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s mid-eighteenth-century automaton the ‘Writer’ could inscribe any one of a programmable range of sentences in an elegant script, including the phrase ‘I think therefore I am’. This reference to Descartes’ famous formulation of human autonomy, reproduced by a mechanical device, exemplifies the way in which eighteenth-century automata were, in Simon Schaffer’s phrase, ‘arguments as well as amusements’ (Schaffer, ‘Enlightened Automata’, in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). They seemed the very embodiment of an Enlightenment promise, that human reason was capable of deciphering and mastering all the laws of nature.

In natural philosophy, this remained a radical, even dangerous idea: Julien Offray de la Mettrie, author of books on materialist and mechanistic philosophy, was forced to flee the liberal Netherlands after the publication of his Man a Machine (1748), in which he argued that the operation of human physiology was the result of mechanical processes. So it is curious that the master craftsmen of automata, like Vaucanson and Jaquet-Droz ‒ who undertook actual experiments in human physiology and demonstrated a capacity to simulate biological processes mechanically ‒ not only escaped such censure, but were widely celebrated for the ingenuity of their work and technological achievement. As charming and whimsical objects of public display, automata were able to pose new questions and demonstrate new technologies in ways that were much more difficult ‒ even dangerous ‒ to attempt in other contexts.

One reason for this is that the automata themselves, with their simulated breathing and moving eyes, elicited an affective response in the viewer. In so doing, these automata have much to tell us about the importance of affective economies in the development of the eighteenth-century public sphere.


‘We Have Always Been Robots: A Brief History of Robots and Art’. In Robots and Art: An Unlikely Symbiosis, edited by Damith Herath, Christian Kroos and Stelarc, pp. 29‒45. London and New York: Springer, 2016. Co-authored with Tara Heffernan.


Plenary paper, ‘Queer Sensations: Affective Machines as Popular Entertainments’

Keynote presentation, 1st International Conference on Contemporary and Historical Approaches to Emotions, University of Wollongong CBD Campus, Sydney, 5‒6 December 2016. 


Image: Eighteenth-century automata at the Musée d’art et d’histoire at Neuchâtel in Switzerland, photograph by Elizabeth Stephens.