How Disney built and programmed an animatronic president #robotics
Ars Technica has a great story on how Disney got started with Animatronics, including the animatoronic Abraham Lincoln from the 1964 World’s Fair.
Animatronics have powered some of sci-fi and fantasy cinema’s most imposing creatures and characters: The alien queen in Aliens, the Terminator in The Terminator, and Jaws of Jaws (the key to getting top billing in Hollywood: be a robot). Even beloved little E.T.—of E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial—was a pile of aluminum, steel, and foam rubber capable of 150 robotic actions, including wrinkling its nose. But although animatronics is a treasured component of some of culture’s farthest-reaching movies, it originated in much more mundane circumstances. According to the Disney archives, it began with a bird.
Among the things Walt Disney was renowned for was bringing animatronics (or what he termed at the time Audio-Animatronics) to big stages at his company and elsewhere. But Disney didn’t discover or invent animatronics for entertainment use; rather, he found it in a store. In a video on Disney’s site, Disney archivist Dave Smith tells a story of how one day in the early 1950s, while out shopping in New Orleans antique shop, Disney took note of a tiny cage with a tinier mechanical bird, bobbing its tail and wings while tweeting tunelessly. He bought the trinket and brought it back to his studio, where his technicians took the bird apart to see how it worked.
This led to the Disney engineers experimenting with what eventually became Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, a building full of animatronic birds signing, flowers blooming, and tiki drummers drumming. Disney was able to make the birds work years before computer programming, engineering, sound, and movement came together in a useful way.
According to an article from the defunct Persistence of Vision, Audio-Animatronics figures’ sounds were recorded onto tape, like a bird’s chirping. When the tape was played back, the sound would cause a metal reed in the system to vibrate. The reed’s vibration would close a circuit, allowing electricity to cross it and power a pneumatic valve in the figure to move (in the case of a bird, opening its mouth). When the sound stopped, the circuit would open again, and the bird’s mouth would return to its neutral, closed position. This way, the motion was dependent upon the sound, so the two would always operate together to create a realistic display of a singing bird.
The Enchanted Tiki Room opened in Disneyland in 1962, first as a restaurant and then as a standalone attraction. Throughout, the implementation remained simplistic. Disney was initially motivated to bring robots to life as a form of real-life animation, essentially taking movies off the screen and into three-dimensional space. But by the time the tiki room debuted, Disney’s team had been quietly pursuing a more ambitious goal—experimenting with more complex systems that could mimic human beings. They were getting close.
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