Not so long ago, before there were self-driving cars, microprocessors or even abundant electricity, the state-of-the-art technology was clockwork. Through cams and springs and gears, craftspeople were able to create precise tools, rudimentary robots and exquisite pieces of art.
Brittany Nicole Cox is one of a handful of antiquarian horologists trained to preserve and restore those objects. She does that from her Seattle workshop where, in gloves and a white lab coat, Cox gingerly removes a box from one of her vintage hardwood cabinets. It’s her specialty-within-a-specialty: A Victorian-era automaton.
“Basically it’s a mechanical bird that’s powered by a spring. It has a train and some very particular shaped cams that dictate the motions of the bird. It has bellows for its lungs and a slide whistle for its voice,” she says.
With a few cranks of a key, the bird comes to life. Its tail bobs and wings flap, the beak opens and whistles a sweet simulacrum of birdsong.
“When I was a child I envisioned things like this but didn’t know that these things existed,” she says.
‘To Simulate What God Can Do’
Cox grew up fascinated with watches and music boxes as a kid. She would take them apart and put them back together. Friends and relatives who knew her well would give her snow globes and knick-knacks with music-box mechanisms inside for gifts.
“I thought when I got older it would be amazing to make things or see things that were mechanical like that but were like animals, because my other favorite thing was animals as a kid,” she says.
Cox spent years as a jeweler before earning a degree in philosophy. There she focused on epistemology, the study of the limits and possibilities of human knowledge. She homed in on the Renaissance period when scientists and craftspeople were exploring clockwork as a way to measure, explore and mimic reality.
That included early proto-robots, even precursors to artificial intelligence.
“People were basically trying to simulate what god can do, how to make life,” she says.
‘A Living Intelligence’
Cox’s favorite object of all time is the Silver Swan, an 18th-century automaton housed in a British museum.
It’s a famous example of clockwork simulating life. No less a figure than Mark Twain wrote that the swan had “a living grace about his movement and a living intelligence in his eyes.”
The sterling silver swan contains three clock mechanisms and a carillon of bells. Floating on a water-like bed of contra-rotating twisted glass rods, the swan preens its feathers before bending its neck and catching a tiny fish in its bill, which it proceeds to eat.
“There’s nothing like it,” Cox says. “That’s the only one anyone has ever seen. That to me was everything I could’ve ever hoped for. So really I had no choice from there, I had to move forward with pursuing working with and being with these objects.”
Cox found her way to the Watch Technology Institute at North Seattle Community College, and on to specialized training in England. Now she preserves and repairs rare timepieces and automata for collectors and museums, such as the famous 18th century Pagoda Clock or an intricate mercury-gilded French Empire music box.
After Decades Of Silence Comes Music
Often she works on restoring pieces that haven’t functioned for decades, work that brings a special reward.
“When it starts working for the first time, that’s the best feeling that anyone could ever experience,” she says. “Knowing something has sat silent for 50 years or even longer maybe, and to have the privilege of hearing it sing once again, just for you, it’s phenomenal.”
Cox sees her work as a way to preserve our common cultural heritage, and to remember the fundamental mechanical knowledge embodied in a well-crafted watch, music box or automaton.
And why, in the age of the Apple Watch, does that stuff matter?
Cox has an impassioned answer for that: History is worth knowing, and horology has contributed a lot.
“Horology is responsible for longitude. We’re able to calculate longitude at sea because of a horologist who invented a timepiece that was seaworthy, the first chronometer,” she says.
“Thank you for sending the rocket to the moon, horology, because that mechanism was invented by Charkes Sauter who worked for the Bulova watchmaking company. There are so many things we have to thank horology for.”
Those things include an uncanny silver swan in a museum, or a finger-size songbird in Cox’s workshop.
“That’s true,” she says, “including all things that are magic like that.”