How Frankenstein's Monster Works

A Clockwork Frankenstein
Leonardo da Vinci studies human biomechanics.
Leonardo da Vinci studies human biomechanics.

While Frankenstein's monster certainly emerges from a legacy of alchemical homunculi and other magically created creatures, he has another distant ancestor in the automaton. An obsession of the ancient Greeks and Chinese, automatons were machines designed to mimic a living body. They were not intelligent in any sense of the word, but still served as a forerunner to modern computational robots.

Accounts of automatons date back as far as the fourth century B.C., when Greek poet Pindar wrote of animated statues on the streets of Rhodes and Archytas of Tarentum reportedly built a self-propelled mechanical bird [source: Babich]. Over time, countless engineers and inventors applied their intellect to mechanical, pneumatic, hydraulic and electric mimicry of biological life. Their attempts ranged from Leonardo da Vinci's 15th century robotic knight, designed to walk and sit, to Jacques de Vaucanson's 18th century digesting duck, which reportedly boasted both motorized chewing skills and a mechanical sphincter to mimic defecation.

Both da Vinci's knight and Vaucanson's duck demonstrate their makers' profound interest in biomechanics. Da Vinci was fascinated by human musculature and devoted long hours to the study of cadavers. For Vaucanson's part, his fascination with digestion and defecation may have stemmed from his own troubled bowels [source: Wood].

All this mimicry stems from the quest to understand biological life. The quest is not unlike that of homunculi-brewing alchemists -- and indeed, great minds such as the 13th century's Albertus Magnus experimented with both mechanical automation and alchemy. The difference, however, is that mechanical efforts produced tangible results, provoking public fascination and even outrage.

After all, if a machine can mimic the human body, then is the human body nothing more than a biochemical machine? And if we're machines, then what does it mean to be human? What, if anything, sets us apart from animals or dancing automatons?