The Story of
the Automaton


Putting It In Motion...

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Maillardet's Automaton

In November of 1928, a truck pulled up to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and unloaded the pieces of an interesting, complex, but totally ruined brass machine. The family who donated it kept it for many years because they understood that it had once been able to write and draw pictures. The machine, however, had been in a fire and needed significant work. After careful study and restoration by staff, the Franklin Institute began to realize the treasure it had been given...

During the 18th century, people were in a state of wonder over mechanism. The first complex machines produced by man were called "automata." The greatest and most fascinating mechanisms were those that could do things in imitation of living creatures. This Automaton, known as the "Draughtsman-Writer," is one such machine.

When they donated the Automaton to the Franklin Institute, the descendants of John Penn Brock knew it had been ruined in a fire and hadn't run for years. The Brock family's understanding was that the machine was made by a French inventor named Maelzel, and that it had been acquired in France. An Institute machinist began tinkering with the Automaton and eventually had it functioning.

The tattered uniform of a French soldier boy was discarded and the doll was clothed in an 18th century woman's dress. (Today, the doll is once again dressed in masculine clothing.) A stylographic fountain pen replaced the original writing instrument, which may have been either a quill or a brush. When the repairs were completed and the driving motors were set in motion, the Automaton came to life. It lowered its head, positioned its pen, and began to produce elaborate sketches. Four drawings and three poems later, in the border surrounding the final poem, the Automaton clearly wrote, "Ecrit par L'Automate de Maillardet." This translates to "Written by the Automaton of Maillardet." Amazingly, the first clue of the true history and identity of the machine had come from its own mechanical memory!

ShipChinese structure
A closer look at the Ship and the Chinese structure, two drawings of the Automaton.

Henri Maillardet was indeed a Swiss mechanician of the 18th century who worked in London producing clocks and other mechanisms. He spent a period of time in the shops of Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who was in the business of producing automata that could write and draw. It is believed that Maillardet built this Automaton around 1800. He made only one other Automaton that could write; it wrote in Chinese and was made for the Emperor of China as a gift from King George III of England.

The Franklin Institute's Automaton has the largest "memory" of any such machine ever constructed—four drawings and three poems (two in French and one in English). Maillardet achieved this by placing the driving machinery in a large chest that forms the base of the machine, rather than in the Automaton's body.

The memory is contained in the "cams," or the brass disks seen below (left). As the cams are turned by the clockwork motor, (below right) three steel fingers follow their irregular edges. The fingers translate the movements of the cams into side to side, front and back, and up and down movements of the doll's writing hand through a complex system of levers and rods that produce the markings on paper.

CamsClockwork Motor
Here is a larger image of the cams and the motor, as well as additional views: Angle #1 (120K) and Angle #2 (117K).

Maillardet exhibited his Automaton throughout England, but after 1833, it is not known what became of the machine until its appearance in Philadelphia. Some think it possible that P.T. Barnum brought the machine to the United States; he knew Maelzel and may have purchased a number of mechanical objects through him. Barnum placed these wonders—including automata—in his museums, one of which was established at Seventh and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia. In 1851, that museum was destroyed by fire. Perhaps that was the fire that left Maillardet's Automaton in need of such repair.

The role of automata in technological progress is considerably important. Efforts to imitate life by mechanical means fostered development of mechanical principles, which led to the production of more complex mechanisms. In the same way that Maillardet's Automaton was built and programmed to delight with its poems and pictures, so today we build and program computers to perform even more amazing tasks. In its own time, Maillardet's Automaton was a wonder that helped pave the way for the greater and bigger technological wonders that amaze us today. The Automaton itself writes (English translation):

A young child whom zeal guides,
Of your favors solicits the price,
And obtains, don't be surprised,
The gift of pleasing you, a child to these wonders.

Automaton Poem in French
Larger view of the poem (64K)

*Excerpts taken from "Maillardet's Automaton," by Charles Penniman, The Franklin Institute Science Museum.


Note: The objects pictured above are part of The Franklin Institute's protected collection of objects. The images are The Franklin Institute. All rights are reserved.