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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In 1578 word spread of the discovery in Rome of a network of underground tombs containing the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Many skeletons of these supposed saints were soon removed from their resting place and sent to Catholic churches in Europe to replace holy relics that were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. Once in place the skeletons were then carefully reassembled and enshrined in costumes, wigs, jewels, crowns, gold lace, and armor as a physical reminder of the heavenly treasures that awaited in the afterlife.
Over the past few years photographer Paul Koudounaris who specializes in the photography of skeletal reliquaries, mummies and other aspects of death, managed to gain unprecedented access to various religious institutions to photograph many of these beautifully macabre shrines for the first time in history. The photos have been collected into a book titled Heavenly Bodies released by Thames & Hudson early next month. (via Hyperallergic)
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155 Years Before the First Animated Gif, Joseph Plateau Set Images in Motion with the Phenakistoscope
Nearly 155 years before CompuServe debuted the first animated gif in 1987, Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau unveiled an invention called the Phenakistoscope, a device that is largely considered to be the first mechanism for true animation. The simple gadget relied on the persistence of vision principle to display the illusion of images in motion. Via Juxtapoz:
The phenakistoscope used a spinning disc attached vertically to a handle. Arrayed around the disc’s center were a series of drawings showing phases of the animation, and cut through it were a series of equally spaced radial slits. The user would spin the disc and look through the moving slits at the disc’s reflection in a mirror. The scanning of the slits across the reflected images kept them from simply blurring together, so that the user would see a rapid succession of images that appeared to be a single moving picture.
Though Plateau is credited with inventing the device, there were numerous other mathematicians and physicists who were working on similar ideas around the same time, and even they were building on the works of Greek mathematician Euclid and Sir Isaac Newton who had also identified principles behind the phenakistoscope.
So what kinds of things did people want to see animated as they peered into these curious motion devices? Lions eating people. Women morphing into witches. And some other pretty wild and psychedelic imagery, not unlike animated gifs today. Included here is a random selection of some of the first animated images, several of which are courtesy The Richard Balzer Collection who has been painstakingly digitizing old phenakistoscopes over on their Tumblr. (via Juxtapoz, 2headedsnake, thanks Brian!)
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A few days ago Colleen Theisen who helps with outreach and instruction at the Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa shared an amazing gif she made that demonstrates something called fore-edge painting on the edge of a 1837 book called Autumn by Robert Mudie. Fore-edge painting, which is believed to date back as early as the 1650s, is a way of hiding a painting on the edge of a book so that it can only be seen when the pages are fanned out. There are even books that have double fore-edge paintings, where a different image can be seen by flipping the book over and fanning the pages in the opposite direction.
When I realized the book Theisen shared was only one of a series about the seasons, I got in touch and she agreed to photograph the other three so we could share them with you here. Above are photos of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter which were donated to the University of Iowa by Charlotte Smith. How much fun are these? Keep an eye on the University of Iowa’s special collections Tumblr as they unearth more artifacts from the archives.
Update: Because this post is getting so much attention, here are some more amazing fore-edge paintings found on YouTube.
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Photographer Rakesh JV captured this phenomenal portrait of a girl having her face painted prior to the Maha Shivaratri festival in India, an annual Hindu celebration in reverence of Lord Shiva. During the festival people offer sacrifices through various means, kids are dressed up as gods, and older individuals are known to inflict pain on themselves through a variety of self torture. Rakesh has traveled all around the country the last few years and has captured a wealth of incredible portraits and scenes that are well worth a look.
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Homebush Bay in Sydney, Australia is home to the remnants of a ship-breaking yard that operated during the mid 20th-century. Large watercraft that outlived their usefulness were towed to Homebush Bay and dismantled to salvage any components that could be reused or sold for scrap.
One such ship was the SS Ayrfield, a 1,140-tonne behemoth built in 1911 as a steam collier that was later used during WWII as a transport ship. In 1972 it was brought to Homebush Bay to be dismantled, but fate would decide differently. Operations at the ship-breaking yard subsequently ceased and parts of several large vessels including the Ayrfield were left behind, the largest objects in an area now infamous for decades of chemical dumping and pollution. But only this century-old transport ship would be transformed by time into a floating forest, a peculiar home for trees and other vegetation that have since sprouted over the last few decades.
From 2008-2010 a concerted effort was made to remove many of the lingering chemicals in Homebush left from the industrial era. Not far away is the Brickpit Ring Walk, a former industrial site where nearly three billion bricks were made from 1911 through the 1980s that is now a carefully protected natural habitat. As the forest has grown inside the SS Ayrfield, the bay is now a popular place for photographers who wish to capture the uncanny sight of this strangely beautiful relic of the bay’s industrial past, not to mention nature’s resiliency.
A huge thanks to Bruce Hood, Andy Brill and Stephane & Eva for providing photos for this post. If you liked reading about the SS Ayrfield you might also like the Glass Beach in California. (via my modern met)
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Editor's Picks: History
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