Automata are self-operating machines, usually designed to resemble humans or animals and to mirror their movements. They originated in ancient Greece, where they were used as toys, idols and scientific tools, demonstrating the new understanding of intricate mechanical engineering. Later automata were powered by wind, water and clockwork, and were adopted for fantastic displays in court and by magicians. A small number of these creations remain on display in museums across the world; the Silver Swan at the Bowes Museum in County Durham, built in 1773, was mentioned in Mark Twain's diaries, and is now activated daily for museum visitors.
Modern automata are used alongside puppets and lighting effects in theatre to create convincing illusions. There is also an active surviving interest in constructing automata; Cabaret Mechanical Theatre in London sells intricate models created by professional artists, offers DIY kits and stages exhibitions of modern automata.
Automata tap into a wider human interest in creating the perfect, artificial being, illustrated repeatedly in literature and art. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) have all created cult horror from the idea of the artificial man; elsewhere puppets and dolls come to life with both terrifying and charming effect in the 1988 film Childsplay, The Wizard of Oz from 1939 and the end of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), where the heroes disguise themselves as automata to trick their way into the Baron's palace. There are clear echoes of mythological tales here, of the Trojan horse and of Pygmalion's sculpture brought to life by Venus. Film, television and literature all abound with the almost-human, with robots, living dolls and reinvigorated dead, acting for both good and ill.
Angela Carter's interest in puppets, toys and automata, in the human made strange, is demonstrated in the weird toys in The Magic Toyshop (1967), the animal-girl in Wolf-Alice (1979), the sexually ambivalent in Albert/Albertina and the unfinished libretto of Virgina Woolf's Orlando (pub. 1996), and the recurrent themes of freak shows and stage magic.