Retrotechtacular: Restoring A 19th Century Automaton

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Made sometime in the 1790s or 1800s London, the Maillardet Automaton has a long and storied history. It was exhibited around England for several decades, brought over the Atlantic by [P.T. Barnum], nearly destroyed in a fire, and donated to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in the 1920s. From there, this amazingly complex amalgam of cogs, cams, and linkages eventually became the inspiration for the book – and movie – Hugo. Time hasn’t exactly been kind to this marvel of the clockmaker’s art; it has been repaired four times before receiving a complete overhaul in 2007 by [Andrew Baron].

[Fran], one of Hackaday’s sources for awesome projects, recently visited the Franklin Institute and posted a series of videos on the reverse engineering of the Maillardet Automaton. Being nearly destroyed and repaired so many times didn’t make this an easy job; it’s extremely possible no one alive has ever seen the eyes of the Automaton move as originally designed.

Even though the Maillardet Automaton has one of the largest series of cams of any mechanical draftsman, that doesn’t mean it’s simply an enlargement of an earlier machine. The automaton’s pen is like no other writing device on Earth, with a stylus acting as a valve to dispense ink whenever the tip touches paper. The eyes have linkages to follow the pen as it traces a drawing. In 1800, this automaton would have been a singularity in the uncanny valley, and watching it put pen to paper is still a little creepy today.

Below you’ll find a video from [Fran] demonstrating all seven drawings the Maillardet Automaton can reproduce. You can also find a whole bunch of pics of the mechanisms along with the 2007 repair report on [Andrew Baron]‘s site.

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

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Drawing with Legos

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There are a number of elaborate Lego creations out there, but you probably haven’t seen something quite like [Andrew Carol's] Lego drawing machine. He drew inspiration from the film Hugo and from automata of the 1800’s, specifically [Jaquet-Droz]‘s Draughtsman, which we featured in a Retrotechtacular article not too long ago.

[Andrew's] hand-cranked creation is divided into three components: a plotter, an “encoded pen stroke program”—which stores messages in links of pieces—and a reader that translates the links into pen strokes. The plotter moves the pen in the Y axis and moves the paper in the X to mark on the page, and also has a simple lift mechanism that temporarily raises the pen on the Z axis to interrupt pen strokes between letters (or drawings).

[Andrew] describes the chain reader by comparing it to a film projector, feeding the message through the mechanism. Although you won’t find a detailed how-to guide explaining the devices’ inner-workings on his site, there are some clues describing basic components and a couple of videos, both of which are embedded below.

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Retrotechtacular: Automata

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For a moment, suspend your worldview and adopt Descartes’s mechanistic interpretation that living beings are essentially complex machines: a collection of inherently unrelated parts that move and collide. Automata, then, represented the pinnacle of accomplishment in a mechanistic universe, requiring considerable skill to construct. Most of their inventors, such as Pierre Jaquet-Droz, were clockmakers or watchmakers, and automata like the 240-year-old boy writer are packed with moving parts to automate motion.

Jaquet-Droz’s writer is particularly impressive considering all its moving parts—nearly six thousand of them—fit entirely within the boy’s body, and that one can “program” the text that the boy composes. It may sound like a bit of a stretch to claim that these clockwork amusements were precursors to the computer, but they influenced inventors and engineers for centuries.

You’ve likely heard of the other famous automaton: The Turk, (which was actually a hoax, housing an operator inside its base). The Turk, however, managed to inspire Charles Babbage to pursue building a mechanical device capable of performing mathematical functions: the Difference Engine.

Watch some of Jaquet-Droz’s other clockwork masterpieces in a video after the break. Magicians like Robert-Houdin were responsible for building a number of automata, so we recommend you keep the mystical atmosphere flowing by checking out another magician’s performance oddities.

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Retrotechtacular: Singing bird automata

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Our cats were both sleeping near the computer and these videos were driving them nuts. To our ears these birdsongs sound pretty good. They didn’t trick the cats into stalking mode, but they did spark an audible complaint. So the predators aren’t drooling but the mechanical engineers reading this should be. These automata combine the precision of a mechanical clock with a bellows and specialized whistle to recreate birdsong.

You’ve got to hear it for yourself to appreciate the variety produced by the mechanisms. The first video shows off the device seen on the left. This particular model is from the 1890’s and the demo gives a good look at the arms that open and block a passageway to alter the sound. After seeing that link — which was sent in by [Stefan] — we started searching around for more info on the devices. The one pictured to the right turned up. It’s from YouTube user [Singing Bird Boxes] who has many videos showcasing these types of devices. We picked this one because he tried to explain how each part of the mechanism works. These are still being made today, but there’s something magical about seeing one built during the steam age.

We’d like to make Retrotechtacular a weekly feature every Tuesday. Help us out by sending in links to projects that highlight old technology, instructional videos of yore, tours of museums or similar relics.

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Automata and wooden gears

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While most animated machines we deal with every day – everything from clocks to cars to computers – are made of metal, there is an art to creating automated objects out of wood. [Dug North] is a creator of such inventions, making automata out of wooden gears, cogs, and cams.

[Dug]‘s inventions are simple compared to turbine engines, but they still retain an artistry all their own. With just simple woodworking tools, he’s able to creating moving vignettes of everyday scenes, everything from a dog barking at a bird, to Santa Claus gracefully soaring over a house on Christmas Eve.

Below, you’ll find a video of [Dug]‘s creation, ‘An Unwelcome Dinner Guest’ – an automated dog barking at a wooden bird. There’s also a video of him being interviewed by the awesome people at Tested last year at the World Maker Faire.

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Cellular automata and LED matrix fun

Blinkomat, an LED matrix, turned out quite well. 240 LEDs controlled by an Atmega 16 is what we call a decent bookshelf decoration. The dimensions of 12×20 were chosen due to the fact that the microcontroller has 32 I/O lines.  The LEDs are switched on and off using multiplexing. The brightness, controlled by pulse width modulation can be varied by 16 levels.  The overall effect is quite smooth an fun to look at.  He has programmed it to do other things than just cellular automata.  Our personal favorite is a simple sine wave. Watch it after the break.

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