Heritage Crafts

Automaton making

The making of moving mechanical sculptures and toys (see also toy making and puppet making).
Currently viable
Craft category
Metal, Wood
Historic area of significance
Renaissance Europe, especially those with traditions of sophisticated manufacturing skills (e.g. Eastern Europe, Germany, metropolitan / courtly France, etc.). The UK and Japan are the most enthusiastic adopters of the discipline.
Area practiced currently
Origin in the UK
18th Century


The history of automata goes back to ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks were fascinated with the notion of creating mechanical living beings. They had very advanced engineering skills and managed to make partially animated statues to be used in ceremonies. Operated by levers and human powered, there are descriptions of using steam and water as a source of power too.

Through the centuries there are records of mechanical creatures and living beings including an animated lion made by Leonardo Da Vinci for King Louis XII. These mostly sought to replicate exact human and animal activity and the more ‘accurate’” an early automaton was seen to be, the more it was prized.

The 20th and 21st centuries see Automata emerging as a modern art form. School curriculums have given students the opportunity to make their own piece of kinetic art under the heading of Design and Technology. Today there is a great deal of interest in automata. Early examples fetch some of the highest prices in auctions. They are considered by many antique collectors to be the most valuable acquisition you can make. The art of animating the human form still fascinates us. Many modern toys now use electric motors and plastic gears to achieve this goal but the mechanical principles behind them go back thousands of years.

Automata today, particularly in the UK are often associated with humour, storytelling and the ‘anti-establishment’. They are often considered to be ‘toys for grown ups’.


There are a very wide range of skills involved in automata making including mechanical engineering, sculpture, carving, painting, decoration techniques, using recycled materials etc.
Paul Clarke, of the First Gallery, comments that “While not a technique, per se, a particular mindset is probably a pre-requisite.”


Related crafts:

  • Music box making
  • Fairground structures and machines such as carousel making

Issues affecting the viability

  • Ageing workforce – Many of the makers now are elderly. If the skills aren’t passed on, the craft will vanish.
  • Declining number of collectors – although the internet is seen a positive tool to introduce more collectors to automata.
  • Covid 19 – This has meant there is less disposable income around to purchase items such as automata.

Many new entrants to the craft are women and this is seen as positive for the future of the craft.

Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known


There is a list of makers on the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre website.


Other information

According to the British Toymakers Guild, automata making is thriving and is of ‘least concern’.


National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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