In those days, clockwork automata like the Mechanical Turk were all the rage. And while many, like the Turk itself, were elaborate hoaxes, many automata were quite real and capable of a range of action and motion astounding to many in the modern day (who consider our forebears to be stupid and backward to a man).

It’s said that the finest of the Renaissance automata came from the Vienna workshop of one Conrad Hutzdorf. Hutzdorf created elaborate machines capable of simulated motion when wound, figures with an internal asbestos bellows which would “smoke” before delighted patrons, and even–based on a request from the Emperor himself–a mechanical nightingale like the one in the stories, whose chirps were produced by panpipes concealed in its base.

Hutzdorf maintained no apprentices as befit expect a craftsman of his station; those few who worked with him made only specific parts to order. Many speculated on the reasoning for this, but Hutzdorf maintained that he preferred to do the work himself, and his patrons did not seem to mind the 6-8 months needed to create each piece.

The craftsman disappeared around 1779-1780 when his workshop was gutted by fire. No body was ever discovered, nor was a cause for the blaze determined, which gave rise to wild speculation in alehouses and parlors throughout town. The most prevalent of them had a patron brashly breaking into Hutzdorf’s workshop after having a commission refused, only to find the craftsman with his chest opened and making adjustments to his own clockwork mechanism! Enraged, the clockwork Hutzdorf reputedly set the fire that wiped him from history and fled elsewhere.

Stuff and nonsense, of course, but an interesting piece of historical background for the Hutzdorf piece that was to appear at our auction house in Philadelphia.

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