Maillardet’s Automaton Continues to Fascinate

Today, we’re surrounded by some pretty awesome gadgets designed to make our human lives easier. And robots are at the cutting edge of this gadgetry. From war zones, disasters, operating rooms and outer space, to inside our own homes, robots are fast becoming indispensable.

But where does our fascination for robots come from and when were the first robots invented? This is a question I found myself asking recently when I glimpsed Henri Maillardet’s Draughtsman-Writer, an early non-electronic moving machine known as an automaton.

Watch the CBS video on Maillardet’s Draughtsman-Writer

Automaton, from the Greek αὐτόματον, is more than just a fancy word for robot. Early derivations of what we now call androids, these are machines that specifically resemble a human or animal in appearance and actions, and are designed to follow a predetermined sequence of operations.

Perhaps now when we think of androids, thanks to Hollywood, we envision Arnold Schwarzenegger deadpanning “I’ll be back.” And from 1950s Gort in The Day The Earth Stood Still to more recent iterations like C-3PO in Star Wars or the anatomically identical Stepford Wives, the movie world has made a mint off restyling the automaton concept to fit its needs.

The most recent Scorsese blockbuster “Hugo”—nominated for eleven Academy Awards— is a story about a boy and his automaton. But not just any automaton; the movie is based on Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which pays homage to Henri Maillardet’s Draughtsman-Writer.

This ancient piece was donated to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1928, highly dilapidated, its origins unknown. Once rebuilt, the automaton itself helped answer the identity of its builder by writing out: “Written by the automaton of Maillardet.”

But beyond the mystery and intrigue of its Swiss maker and origins, what makes this piece more interesting than its contemporaries and predecessors?

To answer this question, foremost experts on the history and mechanics of this particular automaton, Charles Penniman Jr. and Andy Baron, were enlisted. As a watchmaker by trade, Maillardet was using similar techniques to create automation for clocks, but he also had some help, according to Penniman and Baron.

“Jacquet-Droz and Leschot’s work predates Maillardet’s by 20 years, but there is some cross-over, and it’s known that Maillardet was employed by, or had a business relationship with Jacquet-Droz,” Baron says. “Techniques that were used (in miniature form) by Jacquet-Droz’ writer-draughtsman automata were elaborated upon by Maillardet.”

Those elaborations included a design that allows a more extensive (read only) memory and, therefore, a greater array of active sequences.

“The head and eye movement of other contemporary and even later automata, in comparison with Maillardet’s Writer, seem abrupt and obviously mechanical, whereas the movements of Maillardet’s Writer are lifelike to the point of being haunting,” Baron says.

This effect was achieved by the use of extra-large cams, the size allowing a great level of intricacy to the movements. “The degree of accuracy in the cam profiling is amazing,” Penniman says. “The information was sent from the artist possibly through some sort of pantograph to the three brass plates, one for each dimension of movement. The object of making such machines was to amaze the public.” Two-hundred years later it still has that same effect.

Automatons, along with the technology that drives them, have developed over the years into highly capable tools we use as more than just crowd pleasers and sales gimmicks. Modern, intelligent, android technology is being leveraged to greater heights.

Russia recently announced that it is sending its first android to the International Space Station. Designed to undertake “simple” repairs outside the station, the SAR-400 android is also programmed to interact with the astronauts by playing games like checkers and chess.

Even now, in our efforts to engage and entertain, we can see the influence of Maillardet and his now famous mechanical toy.

Photo courtesy of the Franklin Institute

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