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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Retrotechtacular: Automata

automatonWriter

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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A Clockwork Useless Machine Prototype

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Most of us have seen the [Useless Machine] where a switch is flipped and a finger comes out to turn it off, retreating into it’s box again. Most of those are electrical, but why not a [Useless Machine] made only of mechanical clockwork? Apparently this has been done before, but why not one more?

After some rough, sketches, and almost no research, I finally “came up with” a way to do this mechanically. A small wheel acts as the driver for the assembly, which is weighed down by a T-handle attached to a string wrapped around it. When released, this smaller wheel fully rotates causing the larger wheel to rotate up around ninety degrees then come down again. In reality, the flipped switch doesn’t reverse the motion of the finger at all, it instead stops it from cycling over and over. The video after the break may explain it a bit better.

This machine currently is a prototype. Although it works well without a lid on at simply reversing the switch, it’s much too fast and isn’t capable of lifting any sort of weight. Like a lid to come out of, for instance. This whole assembly was made possible with my CNC router and inexpensive/easily machineable MDF. [Read more...]

Arduino boards control cheap clockworks via coil injection

Here’s a couple of clocks that use Arduino boards to control inexpensive clockworks. The concept is quite simple, and perhaps best outlined by [Matt Mets'] article on the subject. As it turns out, these clockworks are driven by a coil, forming a device that is quite similar to a stepper motor. If you solder a wire onto each end of the electromagnetic coil and hook those to a microcontroller, you can alter the speed at which the clock ticks. Just drive one pin high and the other low, then reverse the polarity for the next tick.

The clock you see on the right (translated) is a store-bought cheapy. The Arduino barely visible at the bottom of the image is sending pulses once every second. But as you can see in the video after the break, holding down a button will fast-forward through time. [Sodanam] posted his code as well as pictures of the hardware hack itself.

To the left is a horse of a different color. It’s a clock modeled after the Weasley household clock from the Harry Potter books. The clockwork trick is the same, but the Arduino uses GPS data and NOAA weather information to set the status.

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