Tag Archives: Wookey Hole

The uncanny Laughing Sailor automaton

Wookey Hole Laughing Sailor
Wookey Hole’s Laughing Sailor

Thanks to @feraldata I happened to be reading Elizabeth King’s piece on a 16th Century monk automaton.  The article describes the automaton as having “duende”, loosely translated as “soul” – that is, there is something surprisingly profound (or upsetting) about this simple robot.  That observation reminded me of the Laughing Sailor automaton that was popular as a Edwardian seaside amusement: drop in a coin, and the seated sailor in the glass booth would laugh and rock back and forth.

Sounds simple, non-threatening, and maybe even silly, doesn’t it?  Yet when I saw a Laughing Sailor automaton up close, at Wookey Hole, I found it had something uncanny in its behavior: the all-too-real eyes flick malevolently to the left and right; the face is disturbingly half way between a smile and a grimace, and the not-quite-human rocking to and fro suggests the fellow is far too amused by some joke that may turn out to be on you!

A Laughing Sailor of one sort or another has appeared in various movies, always in the form of a malevolent robot whose laughter comments on the macabre situation.  I’m not surprised – the little guy creeps me out.