Maillardet's Automaton

The Automaton at The Franklin Institute

Maillardet's Automaton

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.

Photo of Automaton

Mechanics of Memory

During the 18th century, people were in a state of wonder over mechanism. The first complex machines produced by man were called "automata." The greatest and most fascinating mechanisms were those that could do things in imitation of living creatures. This Automaton, known as the "Draughtsman-Writer," is one such machine.

When they donated the Automaton to The Franklin Institute, the descendants of John Penn Brock knew it had been ruined in a fire and hadn't run for years. The Brock family's understanding was that the machine was made by a French inventor named Maelzel, and that it had been acquired in France. An Institute machinist began tinkering with the Automaton and eventually had it functioning. It was displayed off and on in The Franklin Institute for the rest of the century.

As recollected by an Institute employee who assisted getting the machine off the truck in 1928, the "boy" was in a tattered uniform that looked to him to be that of a French soldier. Since the boy's legs were either missing or irreparable, the simplest solution seems to have been to dress him as an 18th-century woman in a long dress, although there is a picture of "her" as a Red Cross nurse at one point. Then a lithograph from 1826 came to light, as well as written references, showing the Automaton as a boy. Penniman designed a proper boy's suit, a hat, carved feet, and shoes for him, since his legs were no longer hidden under a skirt. Penniman believes the Automaton was bareheaded, with perhaps a wig, in 1826.

Today, it is no longer costumed, and is displayed to show more of the inner workings of the Automaton. The original writing instrument having been lost, a fine ballpoint pen is now used to bring out the fine detail of the Automaton's works. (A quill and brush have also been tried.) A surviving drawing of the "Chinese Temple" done by the Automaton, probably sometime in the mid 1860s, shows lines that would most likely have been done with a pen constructed somewhat along the lines of a hypodermic needle.

When the repairs were completed and the driving motors were set in motion, the Automaton came to life. It lowered its head, positioned its pen, and began to produce elaborate sketches. Four drawings and three poems later, in the border surrounding the final poem, the Automaton clearly wrote, "Ecrit par L'Automate de Maillardet." This translates to "Written by the Automaton of Maillardet." Amazingly, the first clue of the true history and identity of the machine had come from its own mechanical memory!

Henri Maillardet was indeed a Swiss mechanician of the 18th century who worked in London producing clocks and other mechanisms. He spent a period of time in the shops of Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who was in the business of producing automata that could write and draw. It is believed that Maillardet built this Automaton around 1800. He made only one other Automaton that could write; it wrote in Chinese and was made for the Emperor of China as a gift from King George III of England.

The Franklin Institute's Automaton has the largest "memory" of any such machine ever constructed—four drawings and three poems (two in French and one in English). Maillardet achieved this by placing the driving machinery in a large chest that forms the base of the machine, rather than in the Automaton's body.

The memory is contained in the "cams," or brass disks.  As the cams are turned by the clockwork motor, three steel fingers follow their irregular edges. The fingers translate the movements of the cams into side to side, front and back, and up and down movements of the doll's writing hand through a complex system of levers and rods that produce the markings on paper.

According to Penniman's research, Maillardet exhibited his Automaton throughout England, essentially as a performer at fairs and trade shows. The Institute's Automaton seems to have toured the continent of Europe, reaching as far east as St. Petersburg, Russia. After 1833, it is not known what became of the machine until its appearance in Philadelphia. Some think it possible that P.T. Barnum brought the machine to the United States; he knew Maelzel and may have purchased a number of mechanical objects through him. Barnum placed these wonders—including automata—in his museums, one of which was established at Seventh and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia and another in New York City. Both museums were ultimately destroyed by fire—one of which may have been the fire that left Maillardet's Automaton in need of such repair.

How the Automaton got to Philadelphia and into the possession of the Brock family (who understood the machine had been built by Johann Maelzel) is open to conjecture as is its near destruction in a fire. The Automaton was donated, in shambles, to The Franklin Institute in 1928 where it was restored by Charles Roberts, a talented mechanic on the Institute staff. Without any blueprints or designer's notes, his efforts at restoration relied upon his own personal knowledge of how mechanical objects function. Roberts was ultimately able to place the Maillardet Automaton on exhibit in working order. Subsequent repairs were undertaken by Joseph Balt in the late 1970s. Balt completely disassembled the machine, made needed adjustments and replaced worn gears and other parts. Balt's work and analysis of the engineering details of the Automaton were essential to the repair and maintenance work undertaken in 2007 by Andrew Baron, an exceptionally talented mechanician, along with Penniman. Baron and Penniman believe that the motions of the head and movement of the eyes were very likely more humanoid when Maillardet built the machine, and are still working to improve those motions.

In 2007, the Maillardet Automaton was placed on display as the centerpiece of a then-new exhibition at The Franklin Institute entitled Amazing Machine

Note: The objects pictured above are part of The Franklin Institute's protected collection of objects. The images are ©The Franklin Institute. All rights are reserved.