Maillardet’s automaton is a marvel of 19th century robotics


The Maillardet Automaton was built around 1800 by Swiss mechanic and clockmaker Henri Maillardet and today resides at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Wikimedia Commons (CC By SA 4.0)

In the 21st century, we have become almost accustomed to the idea that robots are capable of replicating and even surpassing human feats of agility and dexterity. Not only do they take jobs such as building automobiles and working in e-commerce warehouses, but they dance to rock and roll music and even take up the sport of parkour.

But in fact, the idea of ​​automata – human-like machines designed to mimic human abilities – actually dates back thousands of years. The word automaton comes from the ancient Greek automatons, which means self-acting, and the Greeks built some of the first machines that imitated living creatures, from mechanical dolphins and eagles that entertained crowds at the Olympics to a mechanical puppet theater, like this 2018 naturalist article describe.

In Renaissance Europe, worshipers marveled at mechanized angels. In 1495 Leonardo da Vinci designed a robotic knight capable of moving his limbs, although it’s unclear if he actually built it, according to Allison Lee Palmer’s book. “Leonardo da Vinci: A Reference Guide to His Life and Works.”

Maillardet’s automaton is born

In the early 19th century, a particularly wondrous human-like machine reached new heights of complexity and even mimicked human artistic expression. We refer to Maillardet’s automatona device created around 1800 by Swiss mechanical designer Henri Maillardet, who worked in London building clocks and other machines. The automaton, which looks like a human boy sitting at a table with a pen in his hand, is able to make four different drawings and even write three poems, two in French and one in English.

“The significance of the Maillardet automaton is that it has one of the largest working memories of any existing automaton of the same period,” explains Susannah Carroll by email. She is Deputy Director of Collections and Curator at Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s leading centers for science and technology education, which acquired the automaton from the estate of a wealthy Philadelphian in 1928 and spent decades restoring and maintaining it.

From memory, she is not talking about computer chips. Instead, the memory of Maillardet’s automaton is in the form of brass discs called cams, which are driven by a clockwork motor. Three steel fingers follow the irregular edges of the cams and translate the movements of the cams into sideways, forward-backward and up-down movements of the automaton’s writing hand, by means of an even more complicated system of levers and rods. Here is a YouTube video of the automaton at work:

“Although automated machines and even human-like machines were written and probably even created thousands of years ago, automata of this size were not at all common,” says Carroll. The Maillardet Automaton was an achievement of engineering and continues to be an impressive marvel of machinery and skill. I would define it as an example of the pinnacle of a type of automation with boundaries defined by the time period in which it was achieved.”

Unlike the larger humanoid machines created in the Renaissance, which were powered by water-moving or pulley systems, most automata from the period in which Maillardet worked were only a few centimeters tall, with mechanisms of miniature clocks designed to reproduce animals such as birds. and frogs. Even so, creating small, complex devices was a complex task.

“Sometimes a single automaton was created by workshops in different countries,” says Carroll. “For example, the mechanism can be made in Switzerland, the enamelling or gilding can be done in France, then the automaton will be sold in England.” Records are sparse for automata that still exist, so it can be difficult to determine who built them. The Franklin Institute, however, was not confronted with this problem, since the Automate de Maillardet signs the last of its four drawings “par l’Automate de Maillardet”.

The Apprenticeship of Henri Maillardet

Maillardet himself learned to build human-like machines as an apprentice of Pierre Jaquet-Droz, an 18th-century Swiss watchmaker and watchmaker and master mechanic. As Lisa Nocks details in her book “The robot: the life story of a technology“Jaquet-Droz tried unsuccessfully to win over the King of Spain as his patron, but was imprisoned by the Spanish Inquisition for several years before returning to Switzerland. Jacquet-Droz’s shop produced several impressive automata, including the replica of a 3-year-old automaton -old child sitting on a stool writing on a small desk with a quill pen several Jaquet-Droz automatons which are on display at the Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

When Maillardet went on his own and opened his own workshop in London, he pushed the art and science of automaton construction even further. “It probably would have taken three artisans about two years to design and build an automaton like the one in our collection,” says Carroll. “Clock and watchmaking skills would be essential to building an automaton. Metallurgy, materials science, precision, creativity, patience, all would likely play a role.”

Like these machines, Maillardet’s automaton was designed primarily to amaze and entertain the public at exhibitions, according to Carroll. “Reproducing life has always been an interesting business,” she says. “It’s an ultimate challenge for the machinist and forces the viewer to wonder what it means to be human, like today’s humanoid robots.”

Maillardet and other horologists and horologists took their large automata on a journey – like the one in the Franklin Institute collection – to create an experience that would make a strong impression on viewers, most of whom had never seen sophisticated mechanical technology. . “In the 1700s, people still looked at the town hall or church clock (which may have had automata like the astronomical clock in Strasbourg) to see the time,” says Carroll. “Pocket watches were not yet popular with the general public, so you imagine it would be rare to have an automaton in one’s personal collection.”

Maillardet toured Europe with the automaton until his death in 1830, reaching as far east as Russia. After that, the machine’s story becomes sketchy. According to the Franklin Institute website, it is possible that circus impresario PT Barnum acquired the device and displayed it in his museums in New York and Philadelphia. The device may have been damaged in one of the fires that destroyed the two museums, before coming into the possession of the Brock family in Philadelphia.

Although automatons – such as mechanical fortune tellers at amusement parks – continued to be popular entertainment into the 1900s, the fascination with them gradually waned somewhat. Carroll suspects that even more spectacular and revolutionary technologies that emerged during the 1990s, from airplanes to television, may make automatons seem less novel.

“Perhaps there have been so many advances in data storage – like the seven programs of the Maillardet automaton until we have now – that we have moved from mechanical robots to our computerized robots” , she says.


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