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Curious Automatons

WHEN Descartes resided in Holland, with great labour and industry he made a female Automaton—which occasioned some wicked wits to publish that he had an illegitimate daughter, named Franchine—to prove demonstratively that beasts have no souls, and that they are but machines nicely composed, and move whenever another body strikes them, and communicates to them a portion of their motions. Having put this singular machine into a case on board a vessel, the Dutch captain, who sometimes heard it move, had the curiosity to open the box. Astonished to see a little human form extremely animated, yet, when touched, appearing to be nothing but wood; little versed in science, but greatly addicted to superstition, he took the ingenious labour of the philosopher for a little devil, and terminated the experiment of Descartes by throwing his Wooden Daughter into the sea.

To this account of a curious Automaton, composed by a philosopher, I shall add another, of one which was made by the mere ingenuity of a natural genius, and which seems to have displayed even more striking effects. The one was the idol of philosophy, the other of religion. The following description is in Lambard’s Perambulations. Kent, p. 227. For an account of Lambard, see Mr. Gough’s British Topography.

“A carpenter of our country being a prisoner in France, got together fit matter for his purpose, and compacted of wood, wire, paste, and paper, a Rood of such exquisite art and excellence, that it not only matched in comeliness and due proportion of parts the best of the common sort; but, in strange motion, variety of gesture, and nimbleness of joints, passed all others that before had been seen; the same being able to bow down and lift up itself; to shake and stir the hands and feet; to nod the head, and roll the eyes; to wag the chaps; to bend the brows: and, finally, to represent to the eye both the proper motion of each member of the body, and also a lively and significant shew of a well-contented, or displeased, mind; biting the lip, and gathering a frowning, froward, and disdainful face, when it would pretend offence; and shewing a most mild, amiable, and smiling cheer and countenance, when it would seem to be well pleased.
“This was the Rood of Grace at Boxley, which was by Bishop Fisher exposed at Paul’s Cross for a cheat, and broke to pieces.”

By similar works, and which have been less happily executed, how many religious frauds have been successfully practised. Mr. Gough notices this piece of religious mummery in his Camden, vol. I. p. 232, in a summary way. These particulars may gratify the curious, who are not antiquarians. Mr. Twiss, in his CHESS, has favoured us with an accurate account of AN AUTOMATON CHESS-PLAYER, vol. I. p. 12.


Editor’s Notes

Descartes had a daughter named Francine who was no more than five years old when she died of scarlet fever in 1640. The tale of his ‘wooden daughter’ of the same name is widespread, and generally prefixed by ‘legend has it;’ but nowhere have I found where this legend is supposed to have originated.