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.
Advertisements

Birds in Shinto and Japanese Culture

ShintoRooster

Daylight had long faded to memory. The world seemed consumed by a never-ending darkness. Despite waiting and waiting… and more waiting… morning never came. The sun goddess Amaterasu refused to emerge from her cave.

The other deities and spirits realized that something had to be done, for an earth without light was becoming too much to bear. These beings, referred to as kami, deliberated on a way to lure the goddess out again. Eventually, after devising a plan, they brought all components into place. The strategy included aiming a mirror towards the grotto-housed Amaterasu (in order to catch her reflection) while roosters crowed nearby.

Soon the great solar goddess, hearing the cocks’ daybreak song, noticed the glowing cavern entrance. She was puzzled, her interest piqued. The scheme appeared to be working. Finally stepping out to investigate, the goddess did what she had resolved to not do—Amaterasu brought sunlight back again into the world (1, 2, 3). The most revered deity in the Shinto pantheon, thus, had been tricked in part by some roosters.

Today these creatures are kept at some Shinto shrines, while the torii, those gate-like structures at temple entrances, are deemed the birds’ honorable perches (4). Although the cock is highly regarded, several other birds also figure prominently within this religion and throughout Japan’s culture.

Monsters, Messengers, and More

Birds are noted in the Kojiki and other ancient texts regarding the history of the Japanese people and their land. Several tales involve a great hero referred to as Jimmu Tenno, who’s depicted as Japan’s first emperor and a descendant of the goddess Amaterasu. For instance, before Jimmu’s conquest of Japan, he sighted a falcon near or on his ship, interpreting the bird’s appearance as an auspicious sign (5, 6). Later, in a dream, Amaterasu revealed her plans to dispatch Yatagarasu, a special three-legged crow and messenger. The vision turned out to be prophetic, for the great kami-bird soon materialized and contributed to Jimmu’s victory (7).

Like many ancient civilizations, the early Japanese also commonly associated death and the hereafter with avian creatures. Archeological remains and artwork discovered at funeral mounds, for instance, suggest birds were considered psychopomps, guiding the dead towards the afterworld (8, 9). In many cases, too, the human spirit was recognized as a bird. A popular story about Yamato Takeru, another of the nation’s storied heroes of antiquity, illustrates this belief. The Kojiki states that upon death he transformed into a white-feathered bird. The exact kind is not clear; however, speculation posits types ranging from a sandpiper to a swan (10).

Other avian creatures, too, continue to remain popular in lore related to death and rebirth. In some circles today, people believe that the dead can return as ravens (11). One Japanese tradition holds that certain individuals, usually Buddhist monks and mountain ascetics tainted with spiritual pride, are reborn as kami-like beings with avian features (e.g., wings and claws, heads of a kite or crow, etc.). Known as tengu, these monstrous figures are believed to reside in the forest highlands where they wreak mischief on nearby hermits. But not all tengu look or act similarly, and some do not resemble birds (12, 13). Also, a few, rather than haunting holy men or abducting children, reportedly offer individuals martial arts instruction. For example, popular stories indicate that tengu trained the legendary twelfth-century warrior and general Minamoto no Yoshitsune (14). Overall, while these mythical creatures may have originated in spooky woodland lore, today they have taken off in the Japanese entertainment industry. One regularly finds tengu in the country’s comics (manga) and animated films (anime) (15).

Iconic Creatures

Featured in Japanese art and folklore, cranes abound among the nation’s most beloved animals. At least a couple of the Seven Gods of Good Luck are portrayed alongside these creatures. Depictions of the sages Fukurokuju and Jurojin, both of whom represent long life, include cranes (16, 17). Ideas associating such deities and these birds with longevity likely stem from Taoist influences (18, 19). As noted in a prior post, cranes do figure prominently in that Chinese religion. They also are significant in origami, the centuries-old art form of Japanese paper folding. Custom holds that a person capable of creating 1,000 paper cranes will be granted health and longevity (20). This idea probably accounts, too, for the origami birds’ popularity as a wedding gift, interpreted as a symbolic wish for the new couple’s marriage to be long and happy.

Besides the crane, a couple other winged creatures deserve mention. The first is the cormorant, a bird particularly important centuries ago. The Kojiki, for instance, refers to allies of Jimmu Tenno as folks who fished with trained cormorants (21). This practice likely originated in China, but is most famous in Japan. If you’re wondering exactly how such a process worked, the key lies with a string-like apparatus. This cord is fixed around the bird’s long neck, enabling fishermen to regurgitate catches restricted within the cormorant’s esophagus. In fact, such a method is still practiced today, but primarily as a reminder of Japan’s cultural heritage (22). Then there’s another feathered favorite, the pheasant. This close relative of the junglefowl rooster is depicted as the messenger of deities such as Amaterasu (23). While the green pheasant is thought of as Japan’s national bird (24), the albino version held significance for the imperial court. According to the eighth-century Nihongi text, sightings of a white pheasant indicated that the kami were pleased with the emperor (25).

Summary                                                                                                             

Much has changed in Japan since the unification of this archipelago nation many centuries ago. Just in the past one hundred years alone, the country has relegated its imperial figures to a ceremonial role and grown into a tech industry powerhouse. Commercial fishing is also thriving—but without the cormorants. Yet, as this post attempts to demonstrate, birds still remain integral to Japanese culture and religious life, from aspects of origami and manga to the symbolism on display at Shinto temples.

Sources:

  1. Roberts, J. Japanese Mythology A to Z. New York: Jim DeFelice, Chelsea House, 2010. p. 5.
  2. Sun, RQ. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1974. p. 162.
  3. Horne, CF et al. The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East: Volume XIII: Japan. New York: Parke, Austin, and Lipscomb, 1917. pp. 37–40, 164.
  4. Sun, RQ. p. 162.
  5. Frédéric, L. Japan Encyclopedia. Roth, K. (translator). Boston: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002. pp. 420–421.
  6. Martin, LC. The Folklore of Birds. Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 55.
  7. Volker, T. The Animal in Far Eastern Art and Especially in the Art of the Japanese Netsuke: With References to Chinese Origins, Traditions, Legends, and Art. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1975. pp. 38–39.
  8. Bonnefoy, Y. (compiler). Asian Mythologies. Doniger, W. (translator). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. pp. 270–272.
  9. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1986. p. 34.
  10. Horne, CF et al. pp. 60–61.
  11. Hoffmann, Y. p. 34.
  12. Bonnefoy, Y. pp. 285–287.
  13. Foster, MD. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015. pp. 130–139.
  14. Foster, MD. pp. 133–135.
  15. Kimbrough, RK., “Tengu,” The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters. Weinstock, JA. (editor). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2014. pp. 529–531.
  16. Roberts, J. pp. 42–43.
  17. Frédéric, L. p. 438.
  18. Renard, J. 101 Questions & Answers on Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002. p. 23.
  19. Mak, R. “Japanese Mythology.” Bullen, M, et al. National Geographic: Essential Visual History of World Mythology. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2008. p. 365.
  20. Mackenzie, D. “Exploring Origami.” Exploratorium Magazine Online (Volume 23, Number 2): http://www.exploratorium.edu/exploring/paper/paper2.html.
  21. Horne, CF et al. pp. 85, 92.
  22. Gabriel, O, et al (editors). Von Brandt’s Fish Catching Methods of the World (Fourth Edition). Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. pp. 34–36.
  23. Horne, CF et al. p. 170.
  24. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 50.
  25. Horne, CF et al. p. 142.

Cartoon Quackers and Other Wacky Fowl

quackers_JML

Research on global humor indicates one critter has a knack for “quacking” folks up. This would come of little surprise, though, to the animators responsible for Donald and Daffy and other zany bird cartoon characters.

British Psychologist Richard Wiseman, whose studies have revealed the hilarious appeal of the small, waddling waterfowl, says that “if you are going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck” (1). Maybe folks are humored by the way it walks or sounds. Illustrators, of course, know that all sorts of birds—not just ducks—have the potential to bring levity to their comics and cartoons. Hence, we have Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy (a penguin), Buzz Buzzard, and Homer Pigeon (all from Walter Lantz Productions); as well as Heckle and Jeckle (a couple of mischievous magpies), Gandy Goose, and—another cartoon duck—Dinky Duck (all from Terrytoons).

The Ducks Have It

Donald and Daffy came onto the scene during the 1930s, but neither was the first cartoon bird on film. For example, a chicken who tries to frame Felix the Cat appeared in the 1928 animated short The Oily Bird (2). However, introduced a few years later in the 1934 Disney classic The Wise Little Hen, Donald made the bigger splash, quickly becoming the foremost major animated avian personality to appeal widely to audiences (3). And Daffy came along three years later in Warner Brothers’ Porky’s Duck Hunt (4). Both characters, the white feathered Donald with his naval uniform sans trousers and the oft unattired black drake Daffy, are now household names throughout the world.

“Being a duck, he likes water,” Walt Disney once explained regarding Donald’s choice of apparel. “Sailors and water go together” (5). By 1942, this irascible, half-clothed waterfowl had garnered Disney’s production studio an Oscar for the animated anti-Nazi propaganda short film Der Fuehrer’s Face (6). (For a detailed and intriguing account of “Donald Duck and Wartime Propaganda,” please check out the link to ArtLark’s blog article.) Of course today, Daisy Duck, Scrooge McDuck, Darkwing Duck, Huey, Dewey, Louie, and a waddling of other family members and friends join Donald, living in the fictional Duckburg. Furthermore, Disney has given flight to a few more fowl since the 1930s, characters such as Owl from Winnie the Pooh, Orville and Wilbur (sibling albatrosses) of The Rescuers movies, and Iago (a parrot) from the Aladdin franchise.

Meanwhile, Daffy and his pals are doing quite well. Today he rivals Bugs Bunny in popularity among the stable of cartoon characters at Warner Brothers. There he also joins other funny-bird personalities, such as Road Runner, Tweety Bird (a canary), Foghorn Leghorn (a rooster), and Henery the Chicken Hawk. I must admit that I have fond memories of watching all these characters on Saturday morning TV as a young child, especially the many escapades involving Daffy and Foghorn.

Still Drawing Applause

Over the years, cartoonists have brought all sorts of feathered entertainers to life. Decades ago, animated short films were common on the big screen, such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics like Jerky Turkey and King-Size Canary. Pixar put its own stamp on this format in 2000 with the studio’s film For the Birds. However, most high-profile animated cinema today consists of feature-length flicks. Recent notable examples include the Penguins of Madagascar; the Antarctic adventures of penguins, skuas, and a puffin in the Happy Feet films; and an assortment of feathered personalities, such as macaws, a toucan, and a cardinal, in the Rio movies.

Not limited to just the motion picture business, birds are also featured in comic books and comic strips. The most iconic of these is Woodstock of Peanuts, a mainstay of newspaper comic sections. While clearly not as famous as Snoopy’s sidekick, Marvel Comics’ Howard the Duck remains a cult favorite in his respective print medium. These are just the biggest names; there are many more. You’ll even find in today’s newspapers several polarizing examples, among them the title character of Mallard Fillmore, a politically conservative comic strip, and Sparky the Wonder Penguin of the left-leaning This Modern World (7).

By the way, comics that delve into political and social issues are nothing new. Pogo, Bloom County, Shoe, and many others, entered that territory long ago. One of the main figures in the swampland setting of Pogo, of course, was an owl (8). Opus the penguin graduated from Bloom County to land a couple of comic-strip sequels (9). Out of these strips, only Shoe still runs in syndication today. It features a cast of avian-anthropomorphized characters, most notably a newspaper-industry osprey named “Cosmo.”

The End                                                                                                                        

As you can see, all sorts of birds have animated cartoon history. Waddling ducks quacking about are wildly funny. But penguins, chickens, and canaries are more than capable of eliciting their share of chuckles. Don’t expect cartoon birds to flock south anytime soon.

Meanwhile, as the curtains close here briefly, please stay safe and have fun. In other words, that’s all folks—‘til two weeks from now. For those of you in the U.S., have a wonderful upcoming Memorial Day!

Sources:

  1. Wiseman, R. “Fun Facts from LaughLab,” RichardWiseman.com: http://www.richardwiseman.com/LaughLab/Documents/funFacts.html.
  2. Crafton, D.C. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. pp. 329, 331.
  3. Gabler, N. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. p. 201.
  4. Hunter, M. “What Makes Daffy Duck? A History of Daffy Duck,” TooLooney: http://toolooney.goldenagecartoons.com/daffy.htm.
  5. Gabler, N. p. 201.
  6. Online Awards Database, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: http://www.oscars.org.
  7. Booker, M.K. (Editor). Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Volume 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC., 2014. pp. 1181–1182.
  8. Booker, M.K. pp. 719–721.
  9. Booker, M.K. pp. xxx (introduction), 1501.