AutomataCon: Mulling the magic of mechanical marvels at the Morris Museum, March 19-20

Automaton from AutomataCon.
Automaton from AutomataCon.

By Peggy Carroll

Watch as a clown loses his head and then gets it back. Listen to a mechanical one-man band, 10 feet tall. See a box that teaches birds how to sing.

And even, if you want, learn how to make something of the same kind yourself. And with things you have around the house.

That’s some of what awaits visitors to the Morris Museum this weekend, March 19-20, 2016, as it hosts AutomataCon, the first-of-its-kind convention for enthusiasts of automata.

Mekankos Vs. Minotaur by D. North, 2012.
Mekankos Vs. Minotaur by D. North, 2012.

For two days, said Brett King, AutomataCon founder and convention chair, fans from as near as Summit and as far as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, will gather “to share ideas, build relationships and and grow interest in automata, both new and old.”

A form of kinetic art, automatons are mechanical marvels that have fascinated and enchanted, as well as entertained for centuries. Even Leonardo da Vinci tried his hand. And they continue to intrigue the audiences of the 21st century –audiences that are both numerous and passionate.

Enthusiasts keep in touch through of a Facebook page called the Automata/Automaton Group and Mechanical Adventures Group. It was this page that sparked the convention, King said, as a way for people conversing online to talk in person.

“The true value of the convention will be the relationships built and knowledge shared when passionate people of common interest come together,” he said

'Crescendo,' by  Tom Haney,  2012. Photo credit: Gregory Campbell. Displayed at AutomataCon.
‘Crescendo,’ by Tom Haney, 2012. Photo credit: Gregory Campbell. Displayed at AutomataCon.

King said the Museum is a natural host. It’s home to the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection, a collection of mechanical musical instruments and automata considered one of the most significant of its kind in the world.

And the Museum is pleased to be part of a pioneering event.

“Never has there been an automaton convention such as this,” said Jeremie Ryder, conservator of the Guinness Collection. “It is clearly is attracting the widest possible array of artists, collectors, historians and pure enthusiasts of this historic, decorative and kinetic art form.

“There will be something for everyone of all ages to enjoy, be amazed and experience,” he promised.

The convention has a diverse agenda. The schedule includes panel discussions, Museum tours, live demonstrations and social gatherings.

Programs will cover the history of automata, the secrets of their creation and an exhibition of automata. While most programs are open only to those who hold two-day tickets, some be accessible to general admission visitors.

Anyone with any ticket can drop into a workshop where artists Aaron Kramer, Sam Cobb and Dave Johnson will provide a beginners guide to creating automata – from design to implementation. And, at the craft table, they can learn to assemble their own automaton using common household items.


Those interested in the science and technology of the mechanicals can attend sessions on the restoration of the Maillardet Automaton at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute (this piece was the foundation for Martin Scorcese’s film Hugo), or one that discusses plans for the repair and display of the Great American Historical Clock.

The convention will discuss the real-life inspiration for Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo.'
The convention will discuss the real-life inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo.’

That fascinating musical automaton was displayed at the World Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and then toured the world with a traveling minstrel show.

They also can watch a DVD about that singing bird box.

Other featured presentations:

The premier showing of the historic film, La Monde des Automates (The World of Automata). This silent movie from 1928 was made to accompany Alfred Chapui and Eduard Geli’s two-volume book by that name. It effectively has been lost for more than 70 years, along with its images of rare and unique automata and mechanical music.

Another film called Curious Worlds: The Art and the Imagination of David Bock is described as “an intimate portrait of the most accomplished American artist you’ve never heard of, working in a genre all his own.”

'Pierrot Ecrivain' (Pierrot Writing), G. Vichy, c.1895, Paris, France. Photo credit: SFO Museum
‘Pierrot Ecrivain’ (Pierrot Writing), G. Vichy, c.1895, Paris, France. Photo credit: SFO Museum

The convention will conclude on Sunday with a demonstration of the Guinness Collection, a treasure trove of 750 historic mechanical musical instruments and automata awarded to the Museum in 2003 and now in a permanent exhibition called Musical Machines and Living Dolls.

More than 150 pieces, mostly dating to the 19th century, are on display. The exhibition traces the start of the modern age of public entertainment and the history of on-demand, repeatable, replayable entertainment.

Admission is $30 for a Saturday and Sunday pass that includes access to the Museum. Tickets are limited and it’s wise to call and see if any still are available.

Saturday general admission is $10 and includes programming tailored to a general audience as well as the entrance fee.

To check out the schedule for the two days, and to find which programs are open to
those with general admission tickets, see

The Morris Museum is at 6 Normandy Heights Road (corner of Columbia Turnpike) in Morris Township. Call (973) 971-3706.

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