Machines that make birdsong run like clockwork WriteAntiques.com aims to introduce folks to the joys of collecting. It is authored by Christopher Proudlove, who has been writing about antiques and auctions since 1979.
This week: bird music boxes
News-Antique.com - Nov 30,-0001 - Automata that mimic birds have been around for a long time. Archytas of Tarentum (420-411 B.C.) is said to have built a mechanical bird that was propelled by a jet of steam and in Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale, the Chinese emperor had a mechanical nightingale made of gold and diamonds that could both fly and sing.
True mechanical and musical automatons, in which movement and sound are produced by clockwork, first appeared in the 15th century. Not surprisingly, German clockmakers were the finest exponents of the art, many of whom utilised the tiny moving figures to strike bells or chimes in clock movements.
Mechanical music machines were adopted in ingenious ways to give movement to automaton figures, favourite among which were monkey magicians. These evil looking creatures performed convincing little conjuring tricks with cups and disappearing dice on stages formed by the top of the box containing the clockwork movement.
However, it was the development of the music box that produced some of the most technically brilliant automata. Probably the most remarkable were those made at the end of the 18th century by a Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) and his son, Henri-Louis (1752-1791).
Singing birds in gilded cages come in varying sizes and population. Small examples are found under four inches in height, but the majority are between 11 and 22 inches, the larger versions with two or occasionally three birds sitting on perches of varying heights. The rarest of all examples are particularly large and ornate and can contain up to 20 birds, giving full rein to the taxidermist's skill.