The great age of automata, or lifelike machines, began toward the close of the Middle Ages and lasted into the 17th century. The technological marvels of that era were clockwork confections—intricate assemblies of gears, cranks, levers and ratchets. Clocks displayed the phases of the moon and the annual progress of the sun through the zodiac; they had animated figures to strike the hours and entertain onlookers.
From machines that imitate life and the heavens, it is an easy step to the idea that life itself might be a mechanical process and that the stars could be driven by some kind of celestial geartrain. The clockwork universe figures in the thinking of Dante, Galileo, Kepler and Newton. Another exponent of clockwork in the sky was Descartes, who also compared animals to mechanical automata. And Thomas Hobbes wrote: "For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs . . . why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life?"
Today, the chronometer's ticking escapement is no longer the epitome of high tech. Brass gears have given way to silicon chips. And as the computer has conquered technology, it has also taken the place of clockwork in metaphor and myth. Novels and films no longer portray us as cogs in a machine we can't control; instead we are bit-players in someone else's virtual reality. At a slightly more serious philosophical level, an ongoing debate asks whether computational processes could account for everything happening in the universe, or whether something more—something nonalgorithmic—is needed. And occasionally the question is asked whether the entire universe might be a vast computer cogitating on The Answer.