This Programmable 6,000-Part Drawing Boy Automata is Arguably the First Computer and It Was Built 240 Years Ago


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 my youth the “automata” of choice was either a Tomy Omnibot or a demonic Teddy Ruxpin, cheaply manufactured plastic robots, both which played cassette 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)

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. Here’s another bit about Merlin’s gorgeous silver swan automata:

Update: Some also argue that the 2,100-year-old Antikythera mechanism used to calculate astronomical positions is a contender for the first analog computer. (thnx, Elliot)

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