Not much larger than a bird itself, the device built in 19th century Paris imitates birdsong with stunning accuracy.

At first, I was expecting a simple pair of tweets and chirps, but the sounds produced by the mechanism are stunningly complex. They go up and down in tone and pitch, powered by a complex array of gears, springs, and bellows. Far more intricate than a simple sound loop, the mechanism produces brilliant sounds, though it’s not clear exactly what species (if any) is imitated.

The device is thought to be built by Blaise Bontems, a French specialist who quickly progressed into becoming a master clockmaker. At some point in his career, a customer brought in a musical snuffbox for repairs. Disappointed by the artificial sounds of the box, he modified the mechanism to improve the sound. He enjoyed working on this type of musical box and started to focus more and more on them. In time, he became one of the foremost producers specializing in mechanical birds and other automated animals, creating several devices like the one here. This particular work was recently restored by Michael Start, of the House of Automata.

Image credits: Michael Start.

The machine is called an automaton: a self-operating machine, or control mechanism designed to automatically follow a predetermined sequence of operations. Automata were designed since Ancient times, with the Greek Antikythera mechanism being the most famous example. However, they became much more popular in the Renaissance and early modern time, as technology also advanced. Another particularly impressive automaton is the 240-year-old writing boy, a programmable, doll-like mechanism capable of writing letters and words with a quill pen.

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