Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Grand Magician automaton by Maillardet answers your questions

Image of the Grand Magician automaton

Here is some wonderful footage of The Great Magician automaton held in the collections of the Musée international d'horlogerie (International Museum of Horology) in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The piece is attributed to Maillardet, but not Henri Maillardet who made the now famous drawing automaton housed at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Rather, this one appears to have been made by one of his brothers, Jean-David Maillardet with the help of his son, Julien-Auguste and his brother Jacques-Rodolphe.

The magician is a soothsayer, who will answer certain questions contained on small plaques. The plates are inserted into a drawer and, after the appropriate amount of conjuring, the answer appears in a window in the top of the piece. It may not pass a Turing test, but it is a remarkable feat of engineering nevertheless. One of the two automata of this sort held by the museum answers the following questions:

1. A rare thing? (A friend)
2. What is too easily given? (A piece of advice)
3. What brings only illusory happiness (Money)
4. What is the greatest treasure? (Wisdom)
5. What does a girl of fifteen want? (To be sixteen)
6. The confidant of a newly married lady? (A Mirror)
7. A happy error? (Hope)
8. If no plate is put the drawer and the machine set in motion, a small devil appears!

You can learn a great deal more about this automaton from the book Automata: A Historical and Technological Study.

[ Thanks Thomas!]

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