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When Walt Disney proudly demonstrated his

groundbreaking new Audio- Animatronics to television audiences in the early 1960s, he presented merely the latest version of a technology thousands of years in the making. Nevertheless the impact on the theme park industry was immense and animatronics have continued to play an important and sometimes integral part to many attractions. Kicking off this special feature, Bill Butler traces the development of automated, animated figures and their use as means of

entertainment, while over the page we assemble a panel of experts for an animated discussion (pun intended)


A moving history

athematician and experimenter Heron of Alexandria (c.10-c.70 AD) chronicled numerous human figures moved by means of mechanisms driven by heated air, water or steam. He describes Greek and Roman temples as early as 150 BC using mechanisms to automatically open doors or sound trumpets on pipe organs, as well as to power what he terms “marvelous altars” (proto-animated stage shows). These early versions of actuation would lead to the contemporary development of moving figures for entertainment – birds that sang, miniature figures of Hercules that shot arrows, dragons that moved and hissed. Principles learned in these early applications informed the design and production of the first automatons (figures of people, animals or fantasy creatures moved by hidden mechanical means). Gear-driven mechanisms began to appear in regular use in the first few centuries AD. Developed over the following centuries, clockwork automatons became increasingly complex and lifelike. The first modern clockwork automaton appeared in Milan in the 14th Century. Dozens of other similar and increasingly complex figures were part of clocks in churches, cathedrals and public squares throughout Europe, part of the rise of the decorative arts extending to the close of the 19th Century. Further development of automatons was driven largely by the demand for ever-more dramatic and intricate novelties by wealthy European citizens. Smaller clocks showcasing moving scenes of the Passion, exotic animals and acrobatic displays graced the marble mantles of the nobility from St Petersburg to Seville.

Automatons for entertainment

Automatons such as this are cited as precursors to modern animatronics


Sensing that public curiosity in automatons would make them a viable attraction, some enterprising makers began to create figures, scenes and effects purely for the exhibition market. From the middle of the 18th Century, salons devoted to the exhibition of automatons were popular throughout Europe. Often showcasing pieces from the private collections of the wealthy (as a way to recoup some of their extravagant costs) and featuring unique pieces owned by the creators themselves, such displays became commonplace in fairs, exhibitions and museums, and were frequently a part of staged magic shows. To facilitate more elaborate and detailed movement, automaton makers began to incorporate cams into their designs, allowing figures to play musical instruments, draw pictures and even write entire poems in beautiful, automated script. Although not programmed in the modern sense, these figures displayed a range and subtlety of motion that rivals modern animatronics. Some survive in operating condition, like Maillardet’s figure in Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, which can write poems in French and English, and draw a series of detailed sketches,

including a Chinese temple and a sailing ship. The figure was first displayed in 1807.

As clockwork mechanisms were created on a larger, industrial scale at the end of the 19th Century, cheaper animated figures began to appear. Animated displays became a mainstay of all manner of shop windows, particularly around Christmas. Increasing sophistication in amusement parks witnessed the birth of the dark ride around the turn of the 20th Century. Taking a cue from elaborately outfitted themed scenes providing visual interest on “scenic railways” (early rollercoasters), dark rides appeared as gentler attractions carrying riders through scenes from literature, popular mythology or exotic places. They were frequently populated with motorised animated figures, an extension of the clockwork technology in automatons.

Dark rides – including ghost trains and their close cousin the “tunnel of love” – were and in many cases still are staples of amusement parks throughout Europe and the United States from the turn of the century. They were frequently filled with a variety of simple, motorised figures representing everything from pirates to gorillas, ghosts and dinosaurs.

An industry is born

An industry creating animated figures for attractions was born, often offshoots of companies already building animation for retail display. Among them, companies like Funni-Frite Industries offered design and production services for entire attractions, along with a full catalogue of off-the-shelf animated figures and scenery. Their sculptures, production methods and motion capabilities were rudimentary by today’s standards. The Ohio-based company dominated the amusement park animation industry for decades, and many of its effects can still be found in attractions today. Knott’s Berry Farm outside Los Angeles, for example, still has an operating “falling barrels” in its classic Calico Mine Ride. It was in this world of rather crude animation that Walt Disney opened Disneyland, down the road from

Mechanical animals like this are a feature of Disney’s classic Jungle Cruise


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