The 200-year-old robot that can write and draw

Mechanised doll makes the automaton seem more than a machine

What makes an automaton tick? For the one on display at the Franklin Institute here, the answer is: a couple of hefty spring motors. The automaton, a mechanised doll built more than two centuries ago by the Swiss watchmaker Henri Maillardet, uses the power from the wind-up motors, carried through linkages to its right arm, to write and draw.

But it is what’s between the motors and the arm that makes the two-foot-high Maillardet automaton seem like more than a machine. A stack of rotating brass cams precisely controls the arm movements. As steel levers follow hills and valleys cut into the edges of the rotating disks, the arm moves smoothly along three axes, side to side, to and fro, up and down.

In essence, the disks are its read-only memory, giving the automaton a repertory of three poems, two in French and one in English, and four drawings, including one of a Chinese temple. “It’s amazing that it does it,” said Charles F Penniman, a retired museum employee who gently tends to the automaton. “But it’s really amazing that it still does it after 200 years.”

The Maillardet automaton, in two centuries, has had about as many ups and downs as the undulations on the cams. It was exhibited across Europe for four or five decades, may have been brought to the US by the 19th-century showman P T Barnum, and was damaged in a fire (perhaps at Barnum’s museum in Philadelphia) before being donated by a local family to the Franklin Institute in 1928. Over the years it’s been modified and repaired, sometimes poorly.

But these are heady times for the machine, and for others like it that were outgrowths of European watch making: An automaton plays a crucial supporting role in the current Martin Scorsese film, Hugo, and in the 2007 illustrated novel the film was based on, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick.

Selznick was inspired, in large part, by the machine at the Franklin Institute. While working on the book he learned that Georges Méliès, the early French filmmaker who is central to the story, had a collection of automatons that was eventually thrown out. Selznick knew little about the machines. “When I called, that’s when I was informed it had broken many years earlier,” he said in an interview. “And that it was in the basement and out of view.”

When Selznick visited, the Maillardet automaton’s head was off, and it could not actually write or draw. But Penniman was able to wind it up and show him how things moved, and how all the gears and cams worked. “It feels like Charles has this very personal friendship with the automaton,” Selznick said.

Selznick was also instrumental in getting the machine repaired, by Andrew Baron, a designer of pop-up books and restorer of vintage mechanisms in Santa Fe.

The automaton, which sits, unclothed, in a glass display case as part of the museum’s permanent “Amazing Machine” exhibition, is now in working order, although it is demonstrated only rarely. If all goes exceedingly well, it will automatically begin another drawing or poem shortly after finishing the first.

Automatons of this type were exhibited by makers of fine watches as advertising and public relations tools to build exposure to their wares, said Jeremie Ryder, conservator of the Murtogh D Guinness Collection of automatons and mechanical musical instruments at the Morris Museum in Morristown. No one knows exactly how they were made, trade secrets were common at the time, but the precision of the work is remarkable. “The pieces that date from that period were the pinnacle of complexity,” Ryder said. “There was an extreme amount of hand labour that went into them.”

Even more remarkable for Baron, the restorer in New Mexico, were the movements of the head and eyes, which are controlled by a couple of simpler cams. Maillardet “created an illusion of life,” he said. “That, to me, is the real magic.”

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