The Writer was built in the 1770s using 6,000 moving parts by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot
Designed in the late 1770s this incredible little robot called simply The Writer, was designed and built by Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz with help from his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot. Jaquet-Droz was one of the greatest automata designers to ever live and The Writer is considered his pièce de résistance. On the outside the device is deceptively simple. A small, barefoot boy perched at a wooden desk holding a quill, easily mistaken for a toy doll. But crammed inside is an engineering marvel: 6,000 custom made components work in concert to create a fully self-contained programmable writing machine that some consider to be the oldest example of a computer.
In this clip from BBC Four’s documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams hosted by Professor Simon Schaffer, we go behind the scenes to learn just how this remarkably complex 240-year-old device was designed and constructed. The entire clip is well worth a watch, in fact here’s another bit about Merlin’s gorgeous silver swan automata:
In my youth the “automata” of choice was either a Tomy Omnibot or a demonic Teddy Ruxpin, cheaply manufactured plastic robots, both which played casette tapes and were destined to break within a few weeks (if you lost or broke the remote control to the Omnibot it was effectively useless). Not to suggest the machines above were mass-produced as children’s toys, but it’s amazing to think such incredibly crafted machines like the Writer and the Swan were built in the eighteenth century around the time of the American Revolutionary War, the age of James Cook, and the invention of the steam engine. (via Colossal Submissions)
Update: Some also argue that the 2,100-year-old Antikythera mechanism used to calculate astronomical positions is a contendor for the first analog computer. (thnx, Elliot)
For the last decade, self-confessed tinkerer and “organic mechanic” Blair Somerville has owned and operated the Lost Gypsy Gallery, a sprawling menagerie of kinetic sculptures, automata, and electronic doohickies. Located in in a remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island, the gallery has become Somerville’s life work, a testament to artistic ingenuity, and an offbeat tourist attraction where visitors can experience first-hand his interactive “Fine Acts of Junk”.
Filmmaker Joey Bania takes us inside this enchanting yet totally bizarre wonderland in his new documentary short Lost & Found, funded in part by BBC Worldwide Young Producers’ grant. NSFW-ish language here and there.
Designed by Swedish artist Per Helldorff, this amazing little wooden automata performs magic with three cups and a ball that seems to teleport before your very eyes with the wind of simple crank. I guess it’s somewhat obvious a few cleverly placed magnets are causing everything to happen, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to watch. (via colossal submissions)
Get out the headphones or turn up your speakers and prepare to be impressed by archaic 19th century engineering. Relying on dozens of moving parts including gears, springs, and a bellows, this small contraption built in 1890 was designed to do one thing: perfectly mimic the random chatter of a song bird. At first I expected to hear a simple repeating pattern of tweets, but the sounds produced by the mechanism are actually quite complex and vary in pitch, tone, and even volume to create a completely realistic song. I think if you closed your eyes you might not be able to tell the difference between this and actual birdsong. It’s believed the machine was built 120 years ago in Paris by Blaise Bontems, a well-known maker of bird automata and was recently refurbished by Michael Start over at The House of Automata. Can any of you ornithologists identify the bird? If so, get in touch. (via the automata blog)
I’ve always enjoyed the work of Netherlands-based artist Levi van Veluw, and this wonderful new Automata is no exception. The piece is made almost entirely of wood and is powered by 100 gears embedded in the base. (via faith is torment)
I was unexpectedly delighted by this documentary short on jeweler, artist, and metalsmith Gary Schott who creates these small kinetic sculptures that produce tiny, intimate gestures. The attention to detail in each piece is astounding, from the early detailed sketches and balsa wood models, to the selection of materials, and even the color of fabric—all to create a tiny device, the sole purpose of which is to gently evoke a smile, to express, in the words of the artist, an action of love. The wonderfully produced video was shot and edited by husband and wife filmmakers Mark and Angela Walley of Walley Films out of San Antonio, Texas. (via junk culture)
I love that these wiry automata by Mihai Bonciu require complex components to make such simple actions. They also seem so incredibly delicate, like winding them the wrong way could cause the entire contraption to collapse. More please!