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This 450-year-old clockwork monk is fully operational

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This stern mechanical monk is a marvel of early automation; likely built in the 1560s, it is a completely self-acting device, with all of its clockwork mechanisms hidden beneath its cloak. Today, the clockwork monk can still scoot about, moving its mouth and arms in silent prayer.


The origin of this automatic wonder is a bit of a mystery, although its creation is often attributed to Juanelo Turriano, a 16th-century Spanish clockmaker who served Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Elizabeth King, an artist and arts professor who herself specializes in movable figurative sculpture, details the mystery of the mechanical monk and the attempts to pin down its creator in her essay, “Clockwork Prayer: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Monk.” The lore surrounding the monk is that King Philip II, son of Charles V, commissioned Turriano to create the penitent automaton after Philip’s son had recovered from a deathly illness. The king of Spain had prayed for his son’s recovery, promising a miracle for a miracle, and this machine of prayer was meant to be his earthly miracle.

Whatever the truth about the monk’s origins, there is no doubt that it is an ingenious creation. Currently, it resides at the Smithsonian, where it has been studied by the National Museum of History and Technology’s Conservator of Timekeeping, W. David Todd. Todd x-rayed the monk, revealing the complex mechanisms within.


Each part of the monk’s body performs its own actions; the body turns every 20 inches or so; the head glances to the left and right; the mouth moves; the eyes look toward the cross each time it is raised; the right arm beats the breast; and, perhaps most impressively, the left arm raises and lowers the cross and the rosary. I highly recommend looking at the diagrams of the monk’s inner workings that King has posted. What’s especially intriguing is that some of the components were decoratively shaped, even though no human was meant to lay their eyes upon it. It’s as if they were meant for the sole appreciation of the divine.

Even defrocked with its mechanical guts exposed, the mechanical monk will not give up all of its mysteries. It remains, though, a testament to the early era of mechanical engineering. It may have been created as an act of religious gratitude, but it stands (and walks and prays) as a tribute to human ability.

Clockwork Prayer: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Monk [Blackbird via Neatorama]