Automata Obsession

Over this glorious holiday weekend, I settled in with a glass of Prosecco and a belly full of chicken parmigiana and finally watched Hugo.  Brilliantly directed by Martin Scorcese and based off of the equally brilliant children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, Hugo is centered around a child who repairs an automaton found in the remains of a museum fire in hopes that it will reveal a message from his deceased father.  Naturally, after the film ended, I immediately became obsessed with the lost art of automata.

Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick Automaton Drawing

Automaton drawing in The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

An automaton can be any self-operating machine, one that operates autonomously.  And although the first to fit this category were created in ancient Greek times and have since inspired the ubiquitous cuckoo clock, the automata that captivate me most are those that perform human-like actions.

Henri Maillard, an 18th century Swiss mechanician, is the real man behind the story and the automaton in Hugo.  In 1805, he created an automaton (now housed in the Philadelphia-based Franklin Institute) that could draw four sketches, including a large ship, and write three poems, two in French and one in English.  Nearly destroyed in a museum fire, the “Draughtsman-Writer” was recovered in 1928 by the Brock family who donated it to the Franklin Institute.  Charles Roberts, a brilliant mechanician, began to repair the unfamiliar and unrecognizable machine without any blueprints or history, slowly unraveling its mystery.  He restored and wound the machine and was awestruck with the results.  The product of the machine’s autonomous writing, a poem written in French, revealed both the machine’s true nature and its creator: “written by the automaton of Maillardet”

Automaton Maillard

“written by the automaton of Maillardet”

“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.”

“written by the automaton of Maillardet”

Automaton Maillardet Ship

Ship sketch by the the “Draughtsman-Writer,” automaton of Maillardet

Automaton of Henri Maillardet Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

“Draughtsman-Writer”: Automaton of Henri Maillardet (Franklin Institute, Philadelphia)

To see the “Draughtsman Writer” by Maillardet in action:

While on the hunt for more automata eye candy and knowledge, I also stumbled upon Nancy, the sewing automaton!  Hailing from the 19th century, Nancy is one heck of a domestic show-stopper.  And only a little bit frightening.

Nancy, the sewing automaton

Nancy, the sewing automaton (

Nancy, the sewing automaton

Nancy, the sewing automaton (

Nancy Automaton

Nancy, the sewing automaton (

Watch her sew, cross her legs, heave her chest, turn her head, nod, and blink!

For more on Maillardet’s wondrous machinery and the story behind the automaton in Hugo, check out the Franklin Institute’s site on Henri Maillardet

And for some pretty darn amazing automata and an exploratory look behind the restoration process (including automata clothing restoration), check out The House of Automata

If your hometown just so happens to be somewhere in the Northeast, there is a museum dedicated to the art of automata in Morrisville, New Jersey (not far from my mom’s house!) called the Morris Museum

Ecrit par L’Automate de Anjou.


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