Cuckoo for Clocks and other Gadgets

cuckooClocks_JML

Out the flapping doors springs a little mechanical bird. Coo-coo! Coo-coo! Admittedly kitschy and somewhat annoying, it likewise has to be one of the cutest and most delightful inventions of all time.

Since emerging from the German Black Forest region in the eighteenth century (1), the cuckoo clock has become a cultural icon. If having never seen or heard one firsthand, you still likely know what one is. After all, the device appears in literature and art, even cartoons and pop music. It remains a cultural fixture of the West.

The staying power of the cuckoo is all the more impressive when considering that avian automatons have existed for more than two thousand years. Bird-themed devices that simulate the calls and motions of the real thing have exerted an alluring pull on people’s imaginations. But what are we to make of this? And, specifically, why has the cuckoo become the modern standard-bearer of avis mechanica and clockwork figures?

Ancient Feats of Fowl Engineering

As far as bird-styled mechanical clocks and automatons go, the cuckoo clock is a relative latecomer. At least a couple millennia before the Black Forest community of craftsmen popularized their iconic inventions, ancient Greek scientists had put forward their own designs. Archytas’s wooden pigeon employed weights and pressurized air for flight (2). Ktesibios’ mechanical water clock featured birds that whistled with the turning of each hour (3). Later, utilizing similar pneumatic and water principles, Hero of Alexandra and Philo of Byzantium conceived their versions of artificial singing birds (4, 5).

With the fall of Rome and the onset of the Dark Ages, interest in mechanical inventions declined. Of course, such contraptions eventually returned with greater flair and refinement. For instance, inside the ninth-century Byzantine Emperor Theophilus’s lavishly furnished throne room supposedly sang mechanical birds forged in gold (6). More than a thousand years later, William Butler Yeats reimagined these warbling automata in his “Sailing to Byzantium” (7) and “Byzantium,” as the songsters represent the “artifice of eternity” for which the poems’ speaker longs. While previous literary works containing songbird gadgetry, such as Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” suggest a leeriness towards machines (8, 9), Yeats’s poems welcome the “glory of changeless metal” over “complexities of mire or blood.” (10)

Of course, humanity’s fascination with technology continued well beyond Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). During Europe’s middle and late medieval periods, pleasure gardens and rooms featuring mechanical birds sprung up principally in the Islamic world. Such automata were noted in the palace courtyard of al-Muqtadir, the early tenth-century caliph of Baghdad (11). Technology like this developed a few centuries later in Western Europe. Around 1300, avian automata were reportedly installed at the Hesdin chateau in Artois, France (12). Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli depicted elaborate designs in his 1588 Le Diverse et Artificiose Machine, some featuring mechanical birds (13). Among the oddest of simulacrum contraptions, though, occurred one and half centuries after Ramelli’s work. The French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson began demonstrating an artificial duck in 1738 that was said to mimic the actual waterfowl’s behavior, including activities such as eating and defecating (14).

About Time

The clockmakers of the Middle Ages returned to the avian theme initiated by Ktesibios. Timekeeping designs, like their automata counterparts, also steadily became more sophisticated. Syrian engineer al-Jazari (1136-1206) envisioned an “Elephant clock,” which atop a pachyderm replica included a whistling mechanical bird (15). Several centuries later, clockwork masterpieces in Western Europe featured mechanically animated crowing roosters. Among these, one was installed in 1573 at the cathedral of Strasburg, Germany, and another the following century within the royal apartments of Versailles, France (16). By the 1700s, the cuckoo clock emerged an exciting novelty from the southwestern mountains of Germany. Later productions included additional favorites, such as blackbirds and nightingales (17).

Feathered creatures are an obvious choice for clocks, for birds have long been linked to time. Even Yeats’s eternal songsters in “Sailing to Byzantium” trill “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Such connections have much to do with avifauna’s migratory instincts. As American writer Jim Harrison eloquently states in one his poems:

Most birds own the ancient clock of north and south, a clock that never had hands, the god-time with which the universe began. (18)

The times of day or seasons when birds are heard, thus, are rich with temporal associations. Roosters, due to their morning calls, are connected with the day and sun, just as owls, for their nocturnal habits, are to the night and the moon. Swallows return in the spring, and cuckoos in the summer, an observation noted in a sixteenth-century English poem of Geoffrey Whitney (19). Regarding the cuckoo, migratory connections, as well as the simplicity and familiarity of its call, most likely account for the bird’s popularity.

Let’s not overlook that cuckoos are likewise associated with zany, off-the-wall behavior. So as far as clocks go, not much could be more outlandishly amusing than a little bird popping out of a house-shaped clock, right?

Coo-coo! Coo-coo!

Sources:

  1. Wolff, HW. Rambles in the Black Forest. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1890. pp. 178-179.
  2. Cooke, CW. Automata Old and New. London: Chiswick Press, 1893. p. 16.
  3. Truitt, ER. Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. p. 4.
  4. Cooke, CW. pp. 17-24.
  5. Truitt, ER. p. 4.
  6. Treadgold, W. “The Macedonia Renaissance”. Renaissances Before the Renaissance: Cultural Revivals of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Treadgold, W (editor). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1984. p. 86.
  7. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. p. 58.
  8. Hyman, WB. “‘Mathematical experiments of long silver pipes’: The Early Modern Figure of the Mechanical Bird”. The Automaton in English Renaissance Literature. Hyman, WB (editor). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. pp. 145-162.
  9. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  10. Lutwack, L. p. 58.
  11. Truitt, ER. p. 20.
  12. Truitt, ER. pp. 122-124.
  13. Hyman, WB. p. 151.
  14. Cooke, CW. pp. 60, 64-68.
  15. “The Elephant Clock”, Folio from a Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by al-Jazari. Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/451402.
  16. Cooke, CW. pp. 52-54.
  17. Wolff, HW. pp. 179.
  18. Harrison, J. “Old Bird Boy”. In Search of Small Gods. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009. p. 56.
  19. Lutwack, L. p. 24.
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Scarecrow Season

scarecrow

It’s a Halloween theme that never dies. With the change in leaves, we expectantly welcome back age-old superstitions involving haunted houses, campfire ghost stories, and horror-flick “Creature Features.” And to this lot belongs another perennial favorite: the traditional scarecrow.

Unlike those other things, though, hay-stuffed rags on sticks don’t really terrify people. Heck, scarecrows aren’t even good at frightening away birds. Our winged neighbors are quite smart and resourceful. In seemingly taunting fashion, crows and rooks will perch on these figures.

Nevertheless, many folks couldn’t care less that conventional scarecrows don’t work. With creative glee and fondness, people throughout the world display them during harvest festivals. Several years ago, one guy in the United Kingdom actually crafted one resembling Lady Gaga!

Making Them Scary (Sort of)                   

The best scarecrow is a living one. That’s why pre-adolescent boys were the optimal choice for guarding crops and shooing feathered pests away. However, the Black Plague changed this. By the fourteenth century, due to a scarcity of people both young and old, British farmers had no choice but to post more effigies (1). Scarecrows likely did little more, though, than give birds pause.

The use of these figures, of course, goes back long before the late Middle Ages. We find them in texts such as the Old Testament (Jeremiah 10:5) and Columella’s first-century De Re Rustica. Their forms varied from culture to culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, relied on wood-carved images of the agricultural fertility god Priapus (2).

In many cases, ancient straw men also served ritual purposes. Some folks, however, have further proposed that the burning of effigies were sacrificial harvest rites. These assertions, while influential, are not well supported. “It has become a standard assumption of romantic folklore that such figures are substitutes for ancient human sacrifices,” explains Juliette Wood, professional folklorist and faculty member at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, “but there is no solid evidence for this.” (3)

Perhaps inspired by these dark notions, America’s entertainment industry has added its own sinister interpretations. Most notable are the early villain of the Batman comics, the human cadavers maimed and bound like scarecrows in Stephen King’s 1977 short story Children of the Corn, and the vengeful figure of the 1981 made-for-television movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. A slew of horror films have since followed, stumbling onto the big screen during recent decades.

A New Era

Just as society’s views towards scarecrows have shifted to the odd and creepy (for our own recreational purposes), attempts at frightening our avian counterparts have also continued. Straw man figures have entered the machine age. Some incorporate pyrotechnics, sound, and motion for better results; most of today’s farmers resort to an array of technological gadgetry (4, 5, 6) that looks nothing like the character in The Wizard of Oz.

So, bygone is the scarecrow’s “hayday,” as its longstanding popularity as an agricultural tool has declined. What remains of the stilted icon is just symbolic, a representation of the community harvest and simpler periods in agrarian history. Nevertheless, these traditional figures still make for cool Halloween decorations. And the birds don’t seem to mind.

Sources:

  1. Holyoake, G. Scarecrows. London, UK: Unicorn Press, 2006. pp. 22-29.
  2. Holyoake, G. pp. 14, 65, 66, 193.
  3. Wood, J. “‘The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago’: Gothic Myths and Family Festivals.” JulietteWood.com: http://www.juliettewood.com/papers/scarecrow.pdf.
  4. Holyoake, G. pp. 59-63.
  5. Marsh, RE, Erickson, WA, Salmon, TP. “Scarecrows and Predator Models for Frightening Birds from Specific Areas,” 3/1/1992. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Pest Vertebrate Conference: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/vpc15/49/.
  6. Baker, S, Singleton, G, Smith, R. “The nature of the beast: using biological processes in vertebrate pest management.” Key Topics in Conservation Biology. MacDonald, D, Service, K (editors). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. pp. 178-180.