Art: Clockwork

Appropriately for the Christmas season, a Manhattan gallery was showing some of the most elaborate grownups' toys ever made: automatons produced largely in the 18th Century by Swiss and British craftsmen. There was a gold caterpillar that, when wound, inched along a tabletop in a pretty fair imitation of nature. A gold mouse, ridged with pearls, scurried, stopped, spun and darted about as if in real fright. An emerald-green frog jumped and croaked.

Eighteenth Century automatons were born of the realization that clockwork is a power source that can be used for more than just telling time. Such triumphs of ingenuity as...

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