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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wednesday Regency: Automatons!

I spent this last weekend in Philadelphia. In addition to all the historical sites, I also visited the Franklin Institute for the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit. (Yes the scrolls were actually there, yes they were translated *G* and yes I highly recommend seeing them.)

BUT...there was a new addition to the Machine Room: Maillardet's Automaton. What you ask? And what does an automation have to do with Regency Wednesday? This one was created by a Swiss clockmaker in 1810! There were no trains, no steam-powered ships, nothing of the sort!

It has to be seen, but I can honestly tell you that this reconstructed machine was the coolest thing I've seen in ages. (Did it top the Dead Sea Scrolls? Apples and oranges my friends.) Here's a picture of the back of the automaton, which looks a lot like the inside of a musical box.

In November of 1928, a truck pulled up to The Franklin Institute science museum in Philadelphia and unloaded the pieces of an interesting, complex, but totally ruined brass machine. Donated by the estate of John Penn Brock, a wealthy Philadelphian, the machine was studied and the museum began to realize the treasure it had been given.

This Automaton, known as the "Draughtsman-Writer" was built by Henri Maillardet, a Swiss mechanician of the 18th century who worked in London producing clocks and other mechanisms. It is believed that Maillardet built this extraordinary Automaton around 1800 and it has the largest "memory" of any such machine ever constructed—four drawings and three poems (two in French and one in English).

Automata, such as Maillardet's Automaton, demonstrated mankind's efforts to imitate life by mechanical means—and are fascinating examples of the intersection of art and science.

The first video (left) below is a quick demonstration of the Maillardet Automaton, set into motion for the camera in 2007 by Charles Penniman of Philadelphia, a long-time volunteer researcher, caretaker, and operator of the machine.

The second video (right) is just over seven minutes long and was recorded on November 4, 2007, when Brian Selznick visited The Franklin Institute for a signing of his book, "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." The Franklin Institute's Maillardet Automaton was a principal inspiration for Selznick's book. Andy Baron operates the machine in the second video clip. Baron, by trade, is an expert in engineering paper pop-up books and was chiefly responsible for the Automaton's restoration in April, 2007.

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