By Sarah Yamashita
Would you like to meet someone who has beaten Napoleon in chess? Or, rather, something?
“The Turk” was constructed in the late 18th century and defeated challengers such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. It was, in fact, a mechanical illusion that allowed a skilled human chess-player hiding inside to operate the machine.
This invention, which mesmerized audiences all over the world, will be in attendance this weekend at AutomataCon 2018, a convention for automaton makers, collectors, and enthusiasts at the Morris Museum in Morris Township.
A welcome reception runs from 6 pm to 8 pm on Friday, May 18, 2018. The convention continues from 10 to 6 on Saturday, and from 10 to 4 on Sunday. Admission ranges from about $30 to $100, depending on the package.
“We believe that anyone who’s rubbed elbows with the ‘maker movement,’ who loves to tinker, hack, design, and invent, will feel like they’ve found their ‘people’ among this lively automata crowd,” said Cleveland Johnson, executive director of the museum.
Johnson believes the museum’s Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata has been hiding under a bushel for too long.
“Because Guinness is all about movement and sound, we have an opportunity to leverage those unusual artistic angles to make the Morris Museum like no other,” he said.
Jere Ryder, one of the museum curators, said the Morris Museum tested AutomataCon two years ago. Ryder is hoping the crowd size doubles to 1000; some 250 people pre-registered.
Video: Highlights from AutomataCon 2016:
“This event stemmed from an online community on Facebook. I thought it would make sense for everybody to come together in person… Collectors can meet artists, artists can meet restorers, and so on,” said Brett King, the convention organizer.
King got into automata through the steampunk scene.
“There’s some overlap from clockwork robots to steampunk, so people who are interested in the oddities and the more unusual side of art gravitate toward automaton,” he said.
The convention dovetails with a special exhibition in the museum’s large main gallery. A Cache of Kinetic Art: Curious Characters, which runs through June 20, 2018, features about 30 kinetic creations. It’s the first in a four-year series at the museum, devoted to kinetic art.
Video: ‘Curious Characters’ at the Morris Museum:
AutomataCon includes structures dating to the 1800s, the golden age for automata, as well as new pieces.
Aspiring kinetic artists are welcome. On Saturday, children and adults can build their own automaton, at workshops hosted by Morris Museum educators. Attendees from across the country can attend a more advanced build-your-own-automaton session on Sunday.
A Saturday morning presentation, Light Touch, will explore crafting comedy into automata. At a makers’ panel, craftspeople will describe what they do, and field questions.
Master illusion maker John Gaughan will present the legendary, life-sized “Chess-Playing Turk,” the most legendary automaton of all time. Gaughan is internationally recognized for building grand magic tricks for magicians like David Copperfield.
He also will present a life-size clarinet player automaton, built by Herr Van Oeckelen in the Netherlands in 1838.
Another featured speaker at AutomataCon 2018 will be Marian van Dijk, director of Museum Speelklok in Utrecht, Netherlands. She will talk about her upcoming exhibit Dancing with the Droids.
When King began organizing the convention, he expected a divide between purists (who power their automata using clockwork) and modernists (who use robotics, laser cutters, and 3D printers).
But King was wrong. “I’m not seeing that division. People are exploring new ways of making automata and kinetic art through motion.”
It seems everyone–from avid automaton fans to bewildered bystanders– can appreciate a chess master or clarinet player.
Morristown Green correspondent Sarah Yamashita is a senior at the Morristown-Beard School. She will attend Smith College in the fall.