History of Automata

Automata are moving figures, tableaux or sculptures powered by electricity, clockwork, water, wind, gravity or hand turned. 

For centuries they have delighted people of all ages with their movement and humour.  Since the 1980s the town of Falmouth in Cornwall, UK has become a focal point for automata makers and collectors.


  • 2-300BC

    The first recorded automata were made in Egypt

  • 4-500AD

    Byzantine water clocks incorporate automata

  • 7th c.

    Islamic artisans develop ever more elaborate water clocks

  • 14th c.

    European ‘clockwork’ includes animated characters striking the chimes

  • 15-16th c.

    Renaissance gardens come to life with hydraulic automata

  • 17th c.

    Life-like mechanical creatures and toys become a craze with wealthy Europeans

  • 18th c.

    Napoleonic prisoners of war in British captivity produce fine bone automata

  • 1850

    Golden age of Victorian mechanical toy makers particularly in France and Germany

  • 1915-1945

    Clockwork and mechanical automata and toys in decline

  • 1945-70

    Alexander Calder and Jean Tinguely explore kinetic and mechanical objects and Sam Smith begins to make painted wooden toys

  • 1968

    Rodney Peppé has his first children’s book published, meets Sam Smith and is inspired

  • 1979

    Sue Jackson opens Cabaret in Falmouth and recruits local makers Peter Markey, Paul Spooner and toy maker Ron Fuller.

  • 1984

    Cabaret Mechanical Theatre moves to Covent Garden, London

  • 1996

    Peter Markey gives one of his ‘wave machines’ to Falmouth Art Gallery 1998 All Hands on Deck! Automata on a maritime theme exhibition at Falmouth Art Gallery

  • 2018

    Falmouth Art Gallery collection now numbers almost 60 automata and includes work by Patrick Bond, Anthony Crosby, Susan Evans, Robert Hackney, Fi Henshall, Robert Jones, Peter Markey, Justin Mitchell, Keith Newstead, Matt Smith, Paul Spooner, Angela and Laurence St Ledger and Carlos Zapata. Many of these artists live and work in or near Falmouth.