The Real Mechanical Birds Behind the Sarantine Mosaic

Philo's birds were far more elegant. Picture by Bryan Ledgard via Flickr Creative Commons
Philo’s birds were far more elegant.
Picture by Bryan Ledgard via Flickr Creative Commons

I loved the artificial birds that featured in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, his fantasy based on the Byzantine empire. The idea of these tiny, intricate mechanical works was spectacular, even before getting into their magical element. But in one of those ‘truth is as cool as fiction’ moments, it turns out that there were real historical precedents for these birds.

I’m sure there are other examples I can point at, but I’m going to focus on the coolest one I discovered in Donald Hill’s A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times.

Philo of Byzantium was a badass of ancient engineering. Living in the third century BC, he wrote a whole series of treatises on mechanical devices, including one on mechanical toys and diversions, and another on devices operated by air and water pressure. While most of the world still considered a standup stick hut an accomplishment, this guy was building intricate sculptures with parts that moved themselves.

This included an automaton featuring a tree with a birds’ nest in it and a snake at the roots. When liquid was poured into the base of the device, the snake would rear up to threaten the chicks in the nest. The mother bird would then rear up and spread her wings to protect her young. Reading Hill’s book, the simple elegance of this device is made clear, but I never would have worked out something like this for myself, and to people seeing it at the time it must have seemed quite a marvel.

The ingenuity of the past is easily forgotten. It’s great that we have the likes of Donald Hill and Guy Gavriel Kay to bring it to life, whether through academic study or the twists and tweaks of a fantasy world.