Automata or self-operating machines date back to the days of ancient Greece, but some truly impressive ones were built in the 18th century. This week’s post features the remarkable craftsmanship of Pierre Jaquet-Droz, a Swiss-born watchmaker who lived from 1721 to 1790. Together with his son Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, he created three automata between 1768 and 1774: The Musician, The Draughtsman, and The Writer. These automata are best known for their lifelike movements and their skills.
The Musician is an organ player who plays a customized instrument. According to Daily Mail reporter Suzannah Hills, she is made with 2,500 pieces. This large number of parts enables her to perform some complex humanlike actions, which are described on Ville de Neuchâtel, the official website of the Jaquet-Droz automata:
You can see her breathing, how she turns her head from side to side, looking left, then right, how she lowers and raises her eyes, leans forward and straightens up once more. She emphasi[z]es her movements when she plays and finishes with a curtsey.
According to Hills, The Draughtsman is made with 2,000 pieces. Being made with fewer parts than The Musician, however, does not decrease his drawing ability. Wikipedia describes how The Draughtsman is capable of drawing “four different images: a portrait of Louis XV, a royal couple (believed to be Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI), a dog with “Mon toutou” (“my doggy”) written beside it, and a scene of Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly.” Wikipedia further notes that the Draughtsman also “moves on his chair, and he periodically blows on the pencil to remove dust.”
The Writer is the most complex of Jaquet-Droz’s automata. Hills notes that “The Writer comprises approximately 6,000 parts and contains 40 replaceable interior cams (a rotating or sliding piece in a mechanical linkage) that dictate the words written.” Using a quill pen and an ink pot, he is able to write “a sentence of up to 40 characters.” Some people consider him to be an ancestor to the modern-day computer because he is programmable. Hills further describes how “parts can be removed, replaced or reordered to allow the automaton to write any sentence required.”
The Jaquet-Droz automata wowed royal audiences throughout Europe when they were first made, and they continue to fascinate public audiences today. According to Ville de Neuchatel, “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.” These “wonders of precision” can still be seen in regular and prearranged viewings at the museum, and they function as well as they did over 200 years ago.
Here are some videos of the Jaquet-Droz automata. The second video is in French, but even if you do not understand French you can get an idea of how the automata move and work from this video.