Astounding 18th Century Automaton

Mechanical Man

A bygone craft revived by the Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese film, “Hugo”

By John Adams

automaton2For more than 200 years, the draftsman has repeatedly sketched the same four drawings and three poems (two in French, one in English). He has written with quill, pencil, fountain pen… His hands appear stiff from the exertion. But wait. A metal scaffold replaces bone, while intricate systems of gold and copper cogs and springs appear to power not only the hand, but indeed, the entire body. The draftsman is not a 21st century wonder. He is a marvel of 18th century craftsmanship and dedication. His name is the “Draughtsman-Writer.” He is an Automaton.


The  Automaton from the movie “Hugo,” inspired by the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” written by Brian Selznick.

Mechanical masterpieces
Automata are, most simply, self-operating machines, like far more intricate windup toys. While Automata have existed since as far back as ancient Greece (most often used as intricate tools or children’s toys), it was during the 18th century that these amalgams of clockworks reached the pinnacle of a shockingly realistic and decorative aspect. Along the bustling cobblestone streets of Victorian London and Paris, Henri Maillardet and Pierre Jaquet-Droz, both Swiss-born watchmakers with remarkable talents, showcase their marvels to boost sales and display their expert clock-making skills. The dexterity and realism of their human figures will even shock some who believe the dolls to be inhabited by spirits.

The mystery of the “Draughtsman”
Today, Maillardet’s “Draughts- man-Writer” is considered the most complex Automaton made during that golden age. On permanent display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, he was even the inspiration for Brian Selznick, author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” a popular children’s book that was turned into the Oscar- winning Martin Scorsese film, “Hugo.”
Incredibly, Maillardet’s masterpiece was part of a wealthy Philadelphia family donation in 1928. The piece had been salvaged from a fire, but was so badly damaged that museum officials had no idea what they had inherited. After extensive tinkering and cleaning, they watched as if the spirit of the centuries-dead artist guided his creation’s hand once more, penning “Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet,” which translates to: “Written by the Automaton of
Maillardet.” A mystery was solved; and the triumph of Maillardet’s illustrious career was reborn.


Author Brian Selznick

Subtlety of movement
Back in 18th century France, Pierre Jaquet-Droz creates his own fantastical Automata. His “The Writer,” “The Draughtsman” (not to be confused with our “Writer-Draughtsman”) and “The Musician” are still considered scientific marvels today. Perhaps Jaquet-Droz’s greatest talent was his ability to imbue his Automata with the subtlety of movement that separates human from machine.
No wonder many thought he was a wizard.  “The Writer” is the most complex. He is able to write any text up to 40 letters long. He uses a goose feather to write, which he inks from time to time, including a shake of the wrist to prevent ink from spilling. His eyes follow the text being written, and the head moves when he takes some ink.

“The Draughtsman” is a young child who can draw four images: a portrait of Louis XV; a royal couple (believed to be Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI); a dog with “Mon toutou” (“My doggy”) written beside it; and a scene of Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly. He also moves on his chair and periodically blows on his pencil to remove dust. Finally, there is the stunning “Musician.” She is a female organ player. She actually plays a real instrument by pressing the keys with her fingers. She “breathes” (you can see her chest rise and fall), and follows her fingers with her head and eyes. She completes her performance with a bow.

Even with today’s groundbreaking technology, these forefathers to modern robotics continue to delight and inspire. Perhaps it is not surprising that Maillardet’s contemporaries often suggested that his creations were controlling him, not the other way around.


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Astounding 18th Century Automaton