In November of 1928,
a truck pulled up to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia
and unloaded the pieces of an interesting, complex, but totally
ruined brass machine. The family who donated it kept it for
many years because they understood that it had once been able
to write and draw pictures. The machine, however, had been in
a fire and needed significant work. After careful study and
restoration by staff, the Franklin Institute began to realize
the treasure it had been given...
During the 18th
century, people were in a state of wonder over mechanism.
The first complex machines produced by man were called "automata."
The greatest and most fascinating mechanisms were those that
could do things in imitation of living creatures. This Automaton,
known as the "Draughtsman-Writer," is one such machine.
When they donated
the Automaton to the Franklin Institute, the descendants of
John Penn Brock knew it had been ruined in a fire and hadn't
run for years. The Brock family's understanding was that the
machine was made by a French inventor named Maelzel, and that
it had been acquired in France. An Institute machinist began
tinkering with the Automaton and eventually had it functioning.
The tattered uniform
of a French soldier boy was discarded and the doll was clothed
in an 18th century woman's dress. (Today, the doll is once
again dressed in masculine clothing.) A stylographic fountain
pen replaced the original writing instrument, which may have
been either a quill or a brush. When the repairs were completed
and the driving motors were set in motion, the Automaton came
to life. It lowered its head, positioned its pen, and began
to produce elaborate sketches. Four drawings and three poems
later, in the border surrounding the final poem, the Automaton
clearly wrote, "Ecrit par L'Automate de Maillardet."
This translates to "Written by the Automaton of Maillardet."
Amazingly, the first clue of the true history and identity
of the machine had come from its own mechanical memory!
Henri Maillardet was
indeed a Swiss mechanician of the 18th century who worked in
London producing clocks and other mechanisms. He spent a period
of time in the shops of Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who was in the business
of producing automata that could write and draw. It is believed
that Maillardet built this Automaton around 1800. He made only
one other Automaton that could write; it wrote in Chinese and
was made for the Emperor of China as a gift from King George
III of England.
A closer look at the Ship and the Chinese structure, two drawings of the Automaton.
The Franklin Institute's
Automaton has the largest "memory" of any such machine ever
constructed—four drawings and three poems (two in French
and one in English). Maillardet achieved this by placing the
driving machinery in a large chest that forms the base of
the machine, rather than in the Automaton's body.
The memory is contained
in the "cams," or the brass disks seen below (left). As the
cams are turned by the clockwork motor, (below right) three
steel fingers follow their irregular edges. The fingers translate
the movements of the cams into side to side, front and back,
and up and down movements of the doll's writing hand through
a complex system of levers and rods that produce the markings
his Automaton throughout England, but after 1833, it is not
known what became of the machine until its appearance in Philadelphia.
Some think it possible that P.T. Barnum brought the machine
to the United States; he knew Maelzel and may have purchased
a number of mechanical objects through him. Barnum placed these
wonders—including automata—in his museums, one of
which was established at Seventh and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia.
In 1851, that museum was destroyed by fire. Perhaps that was
the fire that left Maillardet's Automaton in need of such repair.
Here is a larger image of the cams and the motor, as well as additional views: Angle #1 (120K) and
The role of automata
in technological progress is considerably important. Efforts
to imitate life by mechanical means fostered development of
mechanical principles, which led to the production of more
complex mechanisms. In the same way that Maillardet's Automaton
was built and programmed to delight with its poems and pictures,
so today we build and program computers to perform even more
amazing tasks. In its own time, Maillardet's Automaton was
a wonder that helped pave the way for the greater and bigger
technological wonders that amaze us today. The Automaton itself
writes (English translation):
A young child whom zeal guides,
Of your favors solicits the price,
And obtains, don't be surprised,
The gift of pleasing you, a child to these wonders.
Larger view of the poem (64K)
taken from "Maillardet's Automaton," by Charles Penniman,
The Franklin Institute Science Museum.
objects pictured above are part of The Franklin Institute's
protected collection of objects. The images are © The Franklin
Institute. All rights are reserved.