Making Simple Automata

Making Simple Automata by Robert Race

published 2014 by Crowood Press. Reviewed by Anthony Dew.

As I turned the pages of this new book I came across a large photograph of ’Muttering Bird’ and smaller photos of ‘Cat with Mask’. Marvellous. I have versions of both of these small and very simple automata on my ‘book’ shelves. When you twiddle the knob of ’Muttering Bird’ the creature comes to life. It turns its head in an inquisitive manner, its long beak slowly opens and then suddenly snaps shut with a satisfying clack. When you press the button on ‘Cat with Mask’ the benign smiling face of the cat (which is striped, made from radiata pine, I believe) instantly disappears behind a fearsome face with wide open blood-red mouth, and fangs. I also have another larger Robert Race piece known as ‘Springtime for the Puffins’ whose base is a great heavy block of untreated driftwood that looks like it’s straight off the beach. When you wind its handle four tiny brightly painted wooden puffins with real feather wings alternately leap up eighteen inches or so twizzling joyously. I show them to all our visitors and nobody has ever failed to be amazed - these simple ‘toys’ have such delightful character and move so quirkily and appealingly. They are a definition of unadulterated joy (for adults, mostly).

Robert Race has been one of the BTG’s star toymakers for over thirty years. His work is represented in many collections and museums and he exhibits widely. In this, his first book surprisingly, Robert briefly surveys the history of automata, looks at various materials and mechanisms that may be employed in making simple automata, and even delves into the ‘magic’ ingredients that underpin our fascination with them. The words are good and there are lots of pictures, as you would expect, on every page. The work of several excellent contemporary makers is illustrated, as well as examples of automata from around the world, but the majority of the photographs are, quite rightly, of Robert’s own work. The joy (that word again) of his and, perhaps, of all the best automata, is the way in which a number of simple and often unlikely components - in Robert’s case jetsam, a few home-made cams or levers, wire and string - are shaped and brought together so beautifully and effectively. Mine are at least twenty-five years old and work as well now as when I bought them.

The book purports to be a how-to-do-it manual and in one chapter instructions for three fascinating projects are described: a cardboard cut-out version of ‘Cat with Mask’ (with a ‘Baby Face’ instead of a cat); a splendid wooden articulated swimmer being chased by a shark; and a pair of simple wooden figures worked by three plywood cams who turn around and wave their arms to hold up paper flags that spell the word HELP - very appropriate, probably. I suspect that most readers will read and thumb through this book, enjoy it immensely, and only fondly imagine themselves making something as aesthetically exquisite as the examples shown. If I started to make something out of a big pile of junk I’d probably finish with a smaller pile of junk, period. Also, you cannot fully appreciate the wonder of automata in still pictures which do not show the movement. But those are niggles, this is a lovely book, and I’m inspired (now where’s my craft knife and fretsaw?). It is a very welcome addition to my overflowing bookshelf … I do hope I’ll be allowed to keep the review copy. If not I’ll definitely buy one.


Tony Dew