Saturday, October 17, 2009

Maillardet's drawing automaton at the Franklin Institute

Maillardet's automaton at the Franklin Institute

I had the chance to visit Philadelphia recently, location of The Franklin Institute whose stated mission is "to inspire an understanding of and passion for science and technology learning." For this visitor, they did just that.

The Institute has several traveling exhibits and at least ten continuing exhibits that fulfill their mission admirably. I was there to see one thing in particular. You see, the Franklin Institute is home to one of the world's great mechanical treasures: The Maillardet Automaton.

The automaton is the centerpiece of the Institute's Amazing Machines exhibit -- and with good reason. Created somewhere between 1800 an 1810, the Automaton has the largest "memory" of any such machine ever created. It is capable of drawing four sketches and writing three poems (two in French and one in English).

To see what I mean, check out this video of the automaton in action.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to see the automaton in operation the day I visited -- a rare event, since it is not demonstrated on a regular basis.

I was greeted by several friendly and helpful museum officials. Most of my time was spent with Charles Penniman -- a long-time researcher, caretaker, and operator of the automaton. Mr. Penniman demonstrated how the machine's two spring-driven motors are wound, the writing instrument calibrated, and the machine set into motion. He answered my questions and pointed out various details of the machine and its sophisticated sequences of action.

Seeing the brass skeletonized figure of a boy spring to life, deftly guiding a writing instrument over a blank sheet of paper to create an intricate sketch or a beautifully penned poem filled me with awe. As someone who appreciates mechanical things, there was no doubt that I was in the presence of greatness.

Below is one of the drawings the automaton creates -- a landscape depicting a Chinese palace.

Drawing by Maillardet's Automaton

To my mind, Maillardet's Automaton has to be one of the most impressive unions of mechanical engineering and artistry that has ever been created.

Beyond its antiquity and complexity, the automaton has a fascinating history. At one point, the automaton verified its own origin when, restored to working order, it signed one of its poems in French with the statement "Written by Maillardet's Automaton" (below).

Maillardet's automaton - signed poem

More recently, this automaton was inspiration for Brian Selznick's book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which features an automaton very much like Maillardet's.

Here is a longer video shot in November of 2007, when Brian Selznick visited The Franklin Institute for a signing of his book. Andrew Baron, master mechanician, is the man operating the machine in this video.

My sincere thanks goes out to The Franklin Institute and the many people who contributed to the demonstration I was fortunate enough to witness.

While you may not be so lucky as to see the automaton in operation, it is on permanent display and features a great exhibit complete with a wonderful, informative video (not shown here). I am certain that the Amazing Machines exhibit will appeal to readers of The Automata / Automaton Blog, as will the museum as a whole. If you will be anywhere near Philadelphia, I urge you to plan a trip to The Franklin Institute.

You can learn more about Maillardet's writing and drawing automaton at The Franklin Institute's page on Maillardet's Automaton and another page they have with information about the automaton.

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Anonymous Falk Keuten said...

Hi Dug, you mentioned the master mechanician Andrew Baron, but is he identical with the paper engineer Andrew Baron who has made the mechanics of the wonderful awarded mechanical picture book of the illustrator Paul O.Zelinsky "Knick-Knack Paddywhack" ?
Falk Keuten

October 17, 2009 at 7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post of an amazing automaton. I was lucky enough to be at the demo shown above and was speechless at the natural movement. This machine has a mysterious and wonderful history and I hope it will be operational for a long time to come.

October 18, 2009 at 12:19 AM  
Blogger Dug North said...


Yes! The man in the video is the same Andrew Baron who created that amazing pop-up book. He is a has a talent with all things mechanical.

All the Best,

-Dug North

October 18, 2009 at 12:43 PM  
Blogger Dug North said...

Big news! A movie coming out in the fall of 201l title "Hugo" will feature an automaton inspired by Maillardet's writing and drawing automaton!


August 17, 2011 at 1:11 PM  

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