Clockwork: Background information when reading Angelmaker

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Angelmaker

A Novel

by Nick Harkaway

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2012, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2012, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Beyond the Book:
Clockwork

Print Review

At the heart of Angelmaker is an immensely intricate clockwork device. When we hear the word "clockwork" we generally think of old-fashioned non-digital timepieces. The term, however, refers to any mechanical device that uses a combination of springs and gears to function. In addition to wind-up watches and clocks, wind-up toys, old phonographs and traditional music boxes are all types of clockwork.

All clockwork mechanisms require some kind of power source, typically a weight or coiled spring. This stored energy is then translated into movement through one or more interlocking gear wheels; the release of energy is controlled using a device known in clocks and watches as an escapement, which is in turn connected to a regulating element such as a pendulum, spring or balance wheel.

Antikythera mechanismSchematicThe earliest devices were complex and designed for specific tasks, generally having to do with astrophysical calculations. The oldest extant example is the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient mechanical computer designed to determine astronomical positions.  Recovered in 1900-1901 from a wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, archeologists have determined it was of Greek manufacture, created around 100 BCE. The device, containing at least 30 gear wheels, employed a level of complexity not found in Europe again until the 14th century, with some elements said to be on a par with 19th century clocks. The image to the left shows the main fragment of the Antikythera mechanism, while on the right is a modern-day schematic of the artifact's mechanism extrapolated from the archaeological remains.

Spring-driven mechanisms began appearing in the 15th century, initially in timepieces; but about this time clockmakers also began using increasingly complex combinations of gears and springs to showcase their abilities. The results were intricate toys and automata (self-operating machines), wonderfully elaborate creations designed as gifts for royalty. One of the earliest known makers of clockwork toys was 15th Century German inventor Karel Grod. Tales exist of a mechanical fly he created that would buzz across the room, circle and then return to his hand. He was also credited with a life-size mechanical eagle that could fly around town and return to its original spot.

Leonardo da Vinci produced many clockwork mechanisms as well. One of his best known was a mechanical lion he created to entertain Louis XII of France. The animal was capable of walking across the floor to the king while turning its head and baring its teeth. This was considered a marvel, as while most clockwork devices at that time were only capable of one motion, da Vinci's lion combined several. This remarkable mechanism has been recently reproduced from da Vinci's sketches.

Perhaps the finest examples of automata for their time period were created by Swiss watchmaker Jean-Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son, Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frederic Leschot. Among the numerous devices they manufactured, are three clockwork dolls built between 1768 and 1774 that play music, draw, write, and even appear to breathe. These masterpieces continue to amaze audiences today. The 15 minute video below showcases some of the watchmakers' work.

Article by Kim Kovacs

This article was originally published in April 2012, and has been updated for the October 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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