Nov 6, 2013

This 240-year-old Machine is an Ancestor to the Modern Computer

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An automaton (plural: automata or automatons) is a self-operating machine or robot. Seen above is the Writer, an automaton built in the 1770s by world-renowned Swiss watchmaker, Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790).

Made from nearly 6000 parts, the Writer is a self-operating, programmable machine, capable of writing letters and words with a quill pen. The 240-year-old machine is said to be a distant ancestor of the modern-day, programmable computer.

From the BBC programme Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams (which can be viewed in its entirety here), Professor Simon Schaffer explains this remarkable creation by Pierre Jaquet-Droz in the must-see video below.

 

 

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According to Aerial Adams of A Blog to Watch, The Writer inspired the principle ‘character’ in the Martin Scorsese movie Hugo. The machine works by using a crank to wind up the mainsprings. From there, The Writer comes to life. To achieve ‘life-likeness’, the head and eyes move, following its own hand movements as it writes. The Writer even dips its quill into an ink bottle between words.
 
At the core of The Writer is a large stack of 40 cams with three cam followers that read their shaped edges and translate them into movements of the boy’s arm. Controlling the cams is a large wheel or ‘system disk’, made up of letters that could be removed, replaced and reordered (i.e., programmable). The Writer is able to write any custom text up to 40 letters long, spread over four lines.

 

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The Writer is one of three complex automata created by Jaquet-Droz between 1767 and 1774. In conjunction with the Lady Musician and the Draftman, the three were toured across the courts of Europe; visiting Paris, Brussels, London, Kazan (Russia), Madrid, Austria, Germany and Denmark. In 1906, the Neuchâtel Society of History and Archaeology acquired them for 75,000 gold francs and bestowed them to the Neuchâtel Museum of Art and History, where they have become masterpieces. They can be admired in action on the first Sunday of every month at 2p.m., 3p.m. and 4p.m. or by pre-arrangement for groups (see here for more info).

 

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Sources

- A Blog to Watch: Jaquet Droz “The Writer” Automata: Awesome Antique Android
history-computer.com: Pierre Jaquet-Droz
Ville de Neuchatel: Automata
Neuchâtel Museum of Art and History
Colossal: This Programmable 6,000-Part Drawing Boy Automata is Arguably the First Computer and It Was Built 240 Years Ago
Wikipedia: Jaquet-Droz automata
Wikipedia: Pierre Jaquet-Droz

 

 

 

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