Antonio Diavolo: Amazing Automaton

A mechanical wonder created by 19th-century master magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.

Imagine if you will: a small robot dressed as a trapeze artist. He is almost 3 feet long. Behind him stands a simple swing. His handler places him on the brass bar and asks the mechanical figure, “Antonio, you are so very high up, are you afraid?”

Antonio shakes his head—for Antonio is very much not afraid.

“Antonio, will you entertain us with a little routine?” his handler queries. Antonio nods his head—for Antonio is very accommodating. The handler swings the bar gently, but reminds Antonio that he must keep the bar going on his own. With a few perfectly timed kicks from his legs, Antonio pushes the bar higher and higher. Suddenly, he shoots forward, his body flipping beneath the bar and back around again.

“Antonio, can you swing from your hands?” his handler asks.

Antonio again slips off the bar and swings from his hands before pulling himself up again. Antonio spins around again before pulling himself into a perfect hand stand. The handler slows the bar. Audience members are permitted to ask questions of this amazing android. Antonio nods in response to each one. The handler requests a final demonstration. This time, however, Antonio is left on his own to begin the trapeze motion. In no time he has the bar swinging. He flips over and back and then sweeps his legs over the bar.

“Antonio, can you let go with your hands?” his handler asks.

The bar swings silently as Antonio ponders. First one, then the other hand releases its grip. Antonio hangs only by his knees, silently swinging. As quick as a wink, Antonio grabs the bar, spins over and through, and then lets go—leaping into the arms of his handler.

Given today’s advanced technology, I have no doubt that all of you could easily envision the show described above. Microprocessors and microchips, Bluetooth, 3D printing and advancements of all types have made mundane the things we once would have believed impossible.

But what if I told you that the robot I just described existed over 170 years ago—in a time before most human beings had electricity, when the idea of robots as we know them, or even remote control wasn’t even science fiction; it was unfathomable.

Antonio Diavolo is an automaton, a mechanical doll designed to simulate the illusion of life. Not only were automata popular objets d’art in the 18th and 19th centuries, but many exceptional specimens found their way into public exhibition—often in the performances of master magicians.

Antonio Diavolo was the creation of master magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. (Many will recognize his last name as it is very similar to that of famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini. When Houdini was a young man he became so enamored of French magician that he adopted his name as his own, adding the “i” as was common in theatrical traditions.) Robert-Houdin created some of the most marvelous automata ever conceived. His approach to magic was so revolutionary that he is considered the father of modern magic.

Johnny Gaughan, who has restored the original Robert-Houdin Diavolo, demonstrates Antonio’s abilities below:

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