The relentless technological and digital innovation that has characterized — and in many ways defined — the past decade has a way of making not-terribly-old devices seem positively ancient. Palm Pilots, landline phones and VCRs feel like tech dinosaurs, while the hiss, crackle and pop of a dial-up Internet connection is available via Youtube for those who crave archaic soundscapes.
What, then, can we make of minuet-dancing, mandolin-playing, smoking, drinking automatons that captivated men, women and children centuries ago and endure today as collectors’ gold?
The fact that, as LIFE phrased it in a 1971 article, the 18th- and 19th-century automatons in this gallery once “had no other purpose than to amuse” both deepens their old-fashioned charm and highlights their oddity.
“Nobody knows why monkey automatons were once so popular,” LIFE noted of an elaborately clothed simian automaton that, when activated, shined shoes. The automatons LIFE showcased in that 1971 article doubled as music boxes. Aided by “a concealed maze of spring-driven pulleys and levers,” they appeared to write letters, smoke cigarettes or served tea in miniature teacups.
Today, aficionados pay stiff prices to amass and enjoy musical, miniature automata from all over the world. The wine-swigging chef in this photo gallery — yes, that’s a cat peering out from the saucepan — went for $3,750 at Rita Ford Music Boxes in New York City in the 1970s; decades later, a quick eBay search for similar toys yields prices in the thousands, as well.
Ultimately, automatons are emblems of nostalgia. But they also share a key parallel with digital toys and tools: they are devices of human manufacture that emulate and often take the place of living processes and creatures. Today, self-monitoring wristbands gauge our sleep patterns and count how many steps we take in a given day. Robotic vacuums clean our floors. Smart phones do almost everything. Like old-school automatons, today’s cutting-edge gadgets sometimes appear to pursue lives of their own — evincing a semi-independence that is both eerie and entertaining.
Here, at the end of another year of dizzying digital advances, LIFE.com celebrates some singular — and just slightly creepy — machines that were among the true tech marvels of their time.
— Tara Thean is a freelance writer and graduate student in biological sciences at Cambridge University. Follow her on Twitter @tarathean.