30 October 2013

A programmable automaton from the 18th century

This interesting and less-than-five-minutes video is an excerpt from a full BBC documentary by Professor Simon Schaffer of Cambridge.  It features "The Writer," a cam-guided, programmable automaton by Pierre Jacquet-Droz:
The writer is the most complex of the three automata. Using a system similar to the one used for the draughtsman for each letter, he is able to write any custom text up to 40 letters long (the text is rarely changed; one of the latest instances was in honour of president François Mitterrand when he toured the city). The text is coded on a wheel where characters are selected one by one. He uses a goose feather to write, which he inks from time to time, including a shake of the wrist to prevent ink from spilling. His eyes follow the text being written, and the head moves when he takes some ink.
The full, hour-long documentary is here.  A tip of the blogging hat to reader Alex O. for bringing the link to my attention. 


  1. Can't wait to watch the movie. The Wilson Quarterly had an article about automata a while back that may also be of interest, featuring a wonderful quote by Voltaire: http://wilsonquarterly.com/essays/man-machine

    1. There is a museum in York, England which has several of these creations, and there is a clip on youtube. The full documentary is astounding. I loved it, and thinking about the people who not only designed these machines, but made the parts and put them together, knowing full well what the outcome would be, I wondered why they aren't just as famous as some scientists or painters from the past. It's a mindblowing achievement. And these people made watches for their "day job".

    2. Don't know if you'll ever get to read this I had a look at and read that (excellent) article you recommended and I couldn't help but have a laugh at the irony of being told, at the top of the page, that it would take 15 minutes and 39 seconds to read! I.e., not approximately 15 minutes, but exactly 15 minutes and 39 seconds. We must, after all, really be machines if that's the case.

    3. @Anon 3:06. That is funny. Maybe blogworthy. Thanks for the observation.

  2. All men may be entitled to the same rights, but it seems silly in the face of such brilliance to claim that all men are created equal. Certainly this man's gift for creation was nearly beyond comprehension.


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