Automata for the People: Machine Noise and Attention

Main Article Content

David Ellison


This article examines the production and reception of incidental machine noise, specifically the variably registered sounds emanating from automata in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The argument proposed here is that the audience for automata performances demonstrated a capacity to screen out mechanical noise that may have otherwise interfered with the narrative theatricality of their display. In this regard the audience may be said to resemble auditors at musical performances who learned to suppress the various noises associated with the physical mechanics of performance, and the faculty of attention itself. For William James among others, attention demands selection among competing stimuli. As the incidental noise associated with automata disappears from sensibility over time, its capacity to signify in other contexts emerges. In the examples traced here, such noise is a means of distinguishing a specifically etherealised human-machine interaction. This is in sharp distinction from other more degrading forms of relationship such as the sound of bodies labouring at machines. In this regard, the barely detected sound of the automata in operation may be seen as a precursor to the white noise associated with modern, corporate productivity.

Article Details

On Noise (Peer Reviewed)
Author Biography

David Ellison, Griffith University

David Ellison is a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at Griffith University. He is currently working on a cultural history of Victorian domestic discomfort to be published by Routledge in 2014.