A History of Robotics: Tea Serving Karakuri

1800 to 1900

The Karakuri ningyo are automata made in Japan between the 17th and the 19th century. The word karakuri translates from Japanese to "mechanisms" or "trick" and ningyo meaning person and shape. The Karakuri were intended to provide entertainment. They could gesture and conduct a variety of actions depending on what a particular Karakuri was designed for.

Many kinds of Karakuri have been created but there are a few types which are more common.

Butai karakuri
Butai karakuri were used in theatrical performances. Performances would typically last no more than ten minuted due to the limitation of how much each automaton could preform for between winding. A karakuri would typically be powered by a wound spring made of whalebone which was coupled to a set of cams and levers to control the movements of its head and limbs.

Dashi karakuri
Dashi karakuri were used in religious festivals. They where animated puppets which usually could be seen reenacting traditional stories or myths and legends.

Zashiki karakuri
Zashiki karakuri were the most common type of karakuri. They often used in homes, preforming a limited range of short "parlor tricks". Serving tea was a common feat for these small automatons. Although impractical for anything other than entertainment,  A tea-serving karakuri would start moving forward when a cup of tea was placed on the plate it held in its hands. The karakuri would then move a fixed distance in a straight line before bowing its head to signal that the tea was for drinking. While the device traveled its feet moved as if walking although it was actually propelled by a wheeled base. The karakuri would stop when the tea cup was removed and when the guest placed the cup back on the tray the robot would raise its head, turn around and returns to the spot that it had come from.

The Karakuri ningyo also had a significant amount of influence on the Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku theatre. The first Karakuri show was presented in 1662 at Osaka's Dotonbori by a clock maker named Takeda Omi. Omi took advantage of the theaters location near the river, making several of his karakuri water-powered.

Photo provided by the British Art Museum

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