In San Francisco, you can visit the Musee Mechanique at Fisherman’s Wharf. Formerly located at the Cliff House, it was relocated in 2003. The museum (a private collection) contains more than 300 items, ranging from orchestrions, coin operated pianos, antique slot machines, and animations, down to small bird boxes.
But if you are traveling and stuck out at SFO, there’s a similar exhibit to help you pass the time. The new exhibition features exquisite mechanical figures and musical machines from the 19th century.
Before the Industrial Revolution, automata were created mainly as one-of-a-kind scientific experiments, political or religious theater, and given as diplomatic gifts. Eventually they became promotional devices to attract sales.
French manufacturers later incorporated mass-production technology to produce musical automata, musical dolls, clockwork singing birds, and tableaux méchaniques (mechanically animated scenes) to meet the increasing demand for these new forms of entertainment.
From the mid-1800s to the 1900s, automata served as parlor entertainment. Many skilled artisans were required to manufacture these clockwork machines. They were not considered toys for children, but rather items of social privilege and status.
The manufacture and production of automata reflect the interests and preoccupations of French society at the turn of the nineteenth century. This included a passion for travel and an interest in exotic, foreign places.
Clowns, artists, conjurers, musicians, and dancers represented the public’s fascination and desire for the extraordinary and the unusual. In the first half of the 1800s, mechanical movement clockwork and music box cylinders were perfected and methods of production improved. Automata entertainment expanded beyond the theater and circus into the parlors and living rooms of the middle class.
This exhibition of automata and mechanical tableaux offers a broad range of automaton production from the second half of the nineteenth century, and includes a late twentieth-century creation using nineteenth-century parts and production methods. Most are set in motion by a mechanical spring motor and possess a music box. Unfortunately you will not be able to play with them as they are priceless, one of a kind pieces, representing the best work of the masters of the art – Lambert, Phalibois, Tharin, Renou, Roullet & Decamps, and Vichy.
This exhibition was made possible through generous participation by the Morris Museum, Morristown, New Jersey, and the museum’s Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata, consisting of 750 objects plus over 4,000 pieces of media, representing one of the most significant collections of its type in the country.
Automata: Mechanical Wonders of the Nineteenth Century is located pre-security in the International Terminal Main Hall Departures Lobby, San Francisco International Airport. The exhibition is on view to all airport visitors from November 20th, 2011 to May 13th, 2012. There is no charge to view the exhibition.