Retrotechtacular: Automata


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.

Video Link:

[Via Chonday, thanks Mark]

18 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Automata

  1. Such intricate design…oh my the time spent creating these must have been ages! I’m very impressed by the programmable feature of the Pierre Jaquet-Droz writer…just fascinating! …18th century flash memory.

  2. This is the actual item that inspire me to the engineering field.
    As a young boy, my dad’s friend show me an 8 mm moving picture movie of this same “robot”.. the result is I pulled apart my mom’s heirloom watch and her sewing machine.. to her chagrin.. Dad got so angry and I ended up cannot sit properly for a week.

    But it actually opened my eyes and bring me up another level in understanding that human can build marvelous things. Nowadays, Automation (with microcontrollers) what I do for a living.

    Thank you for the memory lane.

    1. My uncle took apart lots of stuff growing up, like the air conditioner. Thing is he could consistently get it all back together and working properly, sometimes fixing problems in the process. I often wonder what he’d have been able to accomplish had the 60s and 70s been less…chemical.

  3. There was a really good documentary on UK TV about a week ago on clockwork automata, The Writer got a lot of attention. What’s nice about those days, is how beautiful he is, there’s just as much attention to the stitching on his clothes as there is in the cams that hold his little brass ROM.

    The whole thing is basically a lot of cams with followers, round discs followed by a little lever that’s driven in and out by the contours on the disc. A group of levers controls each part of the right arm, down to the re-inking and the little flick to shake excess ink off. Another lever (or 2) controls his left hand, as it moves the paper along.

    His spine, as you can see, mostly contains groups of discs that move the levers, one disc-group per letter he can write. The circle at the bottom contains replacable letter-controls. Each one’s a bump of a certain height. The height corresponds to the height of that letter’s control discs on his spine. So a letter-bump lifts the appropriate letter’s cam into place to be read by the reading levers, as his spine turns.

    I dunno if the ink-dipping and the like are encoded as letters or a separate mechanism. I also dunno if he has a full-stop / period, and a :// is probably pushing it. But how much would you love a hand-written Hackaday address, from an 18th Century robot? Bet that’d win a few dev kits!

    In use he produces endless copies of whatever letter he’s programmed to write (“cogito ergo sum” is a popular one). I suppose they give the copies away, or sell them. I never found out how he’s powered, do they wind him?

    The little dude was in some of the kids’ books I read about robotics as a kid. Along with some industrial arms, toy robots, and that Army thing from the 60s that broke people’s legs. I’m trying to remember what the house of 2000 should have by now. Satellite and computer networks are in, not sure if they promised me the flying car.

  4. Got to bookmark this. Finally a good response for all those elitist hacksters who post BS such as ‘I built exactly the same thing back when there were no microcontrollers…. using three 555 timers, 23 op amps and 21 discreet components’ under each and every article

  5. It is no stretch at all to call these Automatons computers – They certainly were, and are true analog computers. Analog program storage, analog processing, analog vector display. I have researched this family of machines in the past and one resides here at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Like the Antikythera Mechanism, the absolute peerless genius of these Automatons is beyond words.

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