Yes, it’s an automaton that actually writes!
Last time, my blog looked at cutting edge technology in the here and now, with 3D printing. This time, we’re looking at cutting edge technology from circa 1770.
Thinkers and scholars had envisioned human-like robots and automatons for centuries before Swiss clockmaker Pierre Jacquet-Droz was even born. And then, in the 18th century Jacquet-Droz not only imagined, but built this incredible machine.
It’s famously called “The Writer” and there are an astonishing 6000 parts inside the boy.
The tabs can be set to write nearly anything (so long as it’s not more than 40 letters long) and there are 40 cams that do the “reading”. A quill pen made from a goose feather performs the writing. In some ways, The Writer is quite life-like; he stops to ink his pen periodically and glances at the ink when he does it. His eyes follow along as he writes on the paper and he flicks his wrist to prevent ink spills.
When I watch videos of it operating, even though the The Writer makes no sound, it puts me in mind of music boxes or player pianos I saw in my youth.
Two other automatons he built were The Musician (2500 pieces), and The Draughtsman (2000 pieces) but they were much less sophisticated and contained far fewer pieces. It is said that he built these models to draw attention to his watches and clocks and thereby increase sales. Go figure!
Was Jacquet-Droz the first to make a humanoid robot? While Leonardo daVinci designed a human-looking automaton much earlier in 1495, his robot operated using pulleys and cables. The distinguishing and remarkable thing about the Jacquet-Droz is that it was programmable. And because of that, this unusual and unique invention is considered to be the world’s first programmable computer.
You can see “The Writer” at work on Youtube or if you ever happen to be in Switzerland, all three of the automata are on display at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire of Neuchâtel.