The French philosopher René Descartes was reputedly fond of automata: they inspired his view that living things were biological machines that function like clockwork. Less known is a strange story that began to circulate after the philosopher’s death in 1650. This centred on Descartes’s daughter Francine, who died of scarlet fever at the age of five.
According to the tale, a distraught Descartes had a clockwork Francine made: a walking, talking simulacrum. When Queen Christina invited the philosopher to Sweden in 1649, he sailed with the automaton concealed in a casket. Suspicious sailors forced the trunk open; when the mechanical child sat up to greet them, the horrified crew threw it overboard.