RetroProgressive – The mother of drollic design?

A little while ago, Worm introduced me to a rather unique website where I duly adopted the word ‘drollic’ (pertaining to puppet shows).  My trend forecaster’s intuition was obviously spot on, as this turned out to be a curiously appropriate choice…

Although some of us are mere dabblers, with an unaccountable desire to create meaningless stuff for our personal pleasure, tinkerers are the very reason that everything drollic is rapidly gaining iconic superstar style status.

You might have noticed from the news, that we’re entering a new age of automata – an age where robots (and possibly their makers) rule the world.

No surprise then that the centerpiece of The London Design Festival should be a remotely controlled display of robots (courtesy of Audi automotive) in London’s Trafalgar Square. Perhaps Mayor Boris was inspired by ancient Greece, where automata weren’t simply toys, they were also tools for demonstrating basic scientific principles. The most famous automaton inventor was Hero of Alexandria, a Greek mathematician, whose designs included a fire engine and… a water organ.

I’ve never attempted to make an automaton myself, though I’ve been known to dabble at many other things. However, there are plenty of websites showcasing pieces by fanatically talented designer-makers and their weirdly thought provoking works of art:

Prolific designer, Paul Spooner, whose work is featured on the fascinating Cabaret – Mechanical Theatre website says, “Robots are usually employed to perform tasks that human beings find too dirty, dangerous or tedious to undertake themselves. Many modern women find breast feeding an irksome chore and now that most village girls have their sights set on more glamourous careers than wet-nursing, the new lactating robot is set to fill a niche. So far these wet-nursing androids have found favour with only the laziest, most self-absorbed and narcissistic of customers. Bundled with the hardware is a software package that enables the machine to locate, adopt and ship children from foreign countries.

Codenamed ‘The Mother of Invention’ it is marketed as ‘A Novel Transmission’ partly to gratify those men who are interested in the mechanical workings of our products. The mechanism, drawings of which can be seen on p. 270, vol 3 of “Ingenious Mechanisms for Designers and Inventors”, Industrial Press, NY, 1951, was chosen for its simplicity and ability to deliver a relentless reciprocating action under arduous conditions of service.”

I guess you’re thinking this is all very drollic… But, has anyone got a more inventive design idea for an automaton?

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About Author Profile: Susan Muncey

Trend consultant Susan Muncey, is Editor of Visuology Magazine. In 2008, she founded online curiosity shop, She writes on style and trends for several blogs, including, and The Dabbler. She previously owned cult West London boutique, Fashion Gallery, one of the first concept stores in the world. Susan graduated in geography from Cambridge University and is also an Associate Member of the CFA Institute. She lives in London with her husband.

7 thoughts on “RetroProgressive – The mother of drollic design?

    September 25, 2010 at 10:21

    Prior to the age of electronics and eventually computer process control, any attempt at the automation of the process was strictly via mechanical or electrical-mechanical means. The semi conductor and in particular the field effect transistor changed everything. However in the analogue days design was more trial followed by error rather than the application of science, nowhere was this more urgently sought than in the food production industry where mass production was the new black. As these were early days and the boffins still a bunch of wacky amateurs the end results were frequently Jules Vernesque, wild, weird, oscillating, wobbling, throbbing, chewing gum and string contraptions that did however lead to the sliced and wrapped loaf arriving at your breakfast table not to mention your Kit Kat neatly wrapped in aluminium foil.
    The manufacturers, in the pre pretentious business speak days, had ‘experimental bays’, not research and development establishments, same ethos in both, suck it and see.
    Imagine if you will the open doors of the experimental bay, drifting out of which was a miasma of smoke, fug and smell, occasionally a white coated figure would appear, eyes streaming, retching, white coat now stained with goodness knows what, hair akimbo, slide rule in one hand, spanner in the other, eyes filled with triumphalism, muttering figures, numbers, quantities and profanities. The cause of this mayhem was the nearly ill-fated attempt at automating the production of the cup cake which as we all know was of vital strategic importance to the western alliance. Picture this, twenty little pastry cups, all in a neat row have to pass under two dollop emitters, one for jam, one for cream the object of the exercise, accuracy, your average punter would view dimly the prospect of being given an empty cupcake in one hand and the jam and cream in the other. This brain draining task took six months and produced many tonnes of slurry, deposited everywhere, the rats and seagulls were given carte blanche, the works restaurant the nearly perfected end results, which were promptly refused.
    The companies shareholders became the happiest of bunnies.

    Where that experimental bay once stood now stands a supermarket.

    September 25, 2010 at 10:25

    Wonderful post Susan. One of my daughters is ‘trying’ for number two and, by good fortune, her husband has more than a passing interest in the world of automata. He also has a shed, where he goes to ‘do stuff’. I will send him the link, and just wait to see what he comes up with.
    By the by, Patricia Petibon, she of the triangulated red hair that you commented on a couple of weeks ago, has muscled her way into the Dabbler again here, in this aria from Handel’s Rinaldo, Lascia Ch’io Pianga.

    September 25, 2010 at 13:54

    Thanks for your great article. There was a superb expo of Steampunk here earlier this year. Perhaps only a few of the items were automata but most were exquisitely made. The museo has a photo-album of ideas inspired by the exhibition (I declare no connection) including a must-have satnav machine. A couple of weeks ago there was a Steampunk motorbike in town, with copper piping and rads adapted from domestic central heating and old spice jars used as collectors. Ingenious and, in its way, beautiful. Yes, I can easily see some of these ideas catching on but I guess it’s the old story of who made the maker. Real flare and imagination will out; the rest will end up on Malty’s great revolving gloop line.

  4. Worm
    September 25, 2010 at 20:37

    automata good, puppets bad (there’s a diet coke commercial on TV at the moment that I find particulalry irksome)

    One automaton that really sticks in my mind was Noble + Webster’s ‘Scarlet’ that I saw at the Freud Museum – grisly stuff!!!

    September 26, 2010 at 07:50

    Amazing food for thought Malty – and a curiously original angle, as ususal!

    Mahlerman, look forward to hearing what your son in law comes up with (in addition to no.2). Re: Patricia, will take a look and listen (is this link working?)

    Thanks Mark, will have to visit this. Oxford has so many incredible museums – I was there recently to see the Ashmolean, Natural History and Pitt Rivers. Could have done with a few weeks…

    Thanks too, Worm – another one to add to the list.

    September 26, 2010 at 20:07

    Some further thoughts generated by Susan’s absorbing post. I would guess that some of the most goggled at mechanical whizmo’s are the Glockenspiel figures in the Marienplatz and although the majority of it’s audience will be pissed out of their minds after catching Oktoberfestitise they do find it spellbinding and jerky also creepy in a Fritz Lang sort of way. This had me cogitating over mid sixties life in SE London and chats with a colleague, then nearing retirement, who had been one of John Logie Baird’s students, It transpired that, although his ideas were in the ball park they weren’t that far in. He was attempting electro mechanically to generate images, Gerry’s overriding impression of the end result was ‘spooky, jerky as hell, like automata,’ Added to which was the excitement of never knowing whether or not the paycheque was on it’s way.

    So, one of the gods of invention was the forerunner of automata as non digital art maybe.

    Buy me a beer sometime and I will spill the beans on Clive Sinclair plus the mob who invented the missile that took out the watching top brass at the demo, surreal, you bet he was, Clive that is.

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