Lost Knowledge: Antique automata

Lost Knowledge: Antique automata

The Lost Knowledge column explores the possible technology of the future in the forgotten ideas of the past (and those just slightly off to the side). We look at retro-tech, “lost” technology, and the make-do, improvised “street tech” of village artisans and tradespeople from around the globe. “Lost Knowledge” was also the theme of MAKE Volume 17

I can’t think of a more romantic makery job than running an antique automata fix-it shop. You get to be part Geppetto, part horologist, and part Dr. Tyrell from Bladerunner. Such is the life of “automatist” Michael Start and his partner, sculptor and artist, Maria Start. From their shop, in Findhorn, Scotland, which looks like something straight from a fantasy movie set, they repair antique automata and singing birds. It’s a union forged in a clockwork heaven. Michael, a trained horologist, does the mechanical repairs, and Maria sculpts the missing body parts and expertly color-matches the time-worn paint jobs. Here’s a brief video tour of their shop:

YouTube player

On their website, House of Automata (formerly Autonomania), they can claim (and who would challenge them?) to be “the UK’s only specialist automata restoration company.” Wonder how many self-described “automatists” there are in the world? And automata repairmen? Now there’s a party in a teacup.


Michael and Maria’s site has a number of videos and photo sets of some of the treasurers they’ve worked on and more information on antique automata. Poking around the site feels a bit like you might imagine poking around their shop might. Given that House of Automata is located in northern Scotland, off of the North Sea, you’re far more likely to ever take the virtual tour. Here are a few more videos of several of their restored pieces:

YouTube player
YouTube player
YouTube player

For more on the history of automata, see:

The Wikipedia entry on automaton
The Automaton and Mechanical Toys site
La cite de l’automate, which looks to be the site of a French automata repairman.

The House of Automata


In the Maker Shed:
Designing Automata Kit
Automata utilize clock-work mechanisms to imitate motion. With this amazingly fun and creative kit, you can design, make, and experiment with endless varieties of automata of your own design, with no glue or tools!

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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