An automaton (plural: automata) is a self-operating machine. The word is sometimes used to describe a robot.
The word is more often used to describe non-electronic moving machines, however, especially those that have been made to resemble human or animal actions, such as the jacks on old public striking clocks, or the cuckoo and any other animated figures on a cuckoo clock.
The first recorded design of a humanoid automaton is credited to Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1495. The design of Leonardo's robot was not rediscovered until the 1950s. The robot, which appears in Leonardo's sketches, could, if built successfully, move its arms, twist its head, and sit up. It is not known if an attempt was made to build the device.
The world's first successfully-built biomechanical automaton is considered to be The Flute Player, invented by the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737.
In 1769, a chess-playing automaton called the Turk made the rounds of the courts of Europe, but in fact was a famous hoax, operated from inside by a hidden human operator.
Other Eighteenth Century automata makers include the prolific Frenchman Pierre Jacquet-Droz and his contemporary Henri Maillardet. Maillardet, a Swiss mechanician, created an automaton capable of drawing four pictures and writing three poems. Maillardet's Automaton is now part of the collections at The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia.
Automata of this sort were also created in Japan and are known as Karakuri.