Contrary to our popular notions, the core concepts (and literary mentions) of automatons or ‘robots’ are almost 2,500 years old. For example, according to a Chinese legend (as mentioned in the 4th century BC Daoist text Lie Zi), one Yan Shi successfully created an automaton that resembled a human form. Other ancient literary works and mythological anecdotes also allude to similar robotic mechanisms – like the famed Talos, a bronze-made guardian crafted by Hephaestus himself; and the ‘bhuta vahana yanta’ or mechanical robots of King Ajatasatru of Magadha (Eastern India), who guarded the Buddhist relics. However beyond just legends and myths, there were actual robotic designs that were contrived and conceptualized (before 19th century) by many an ingenious inventor and thinker (including Leonardo da Vinci).
One such example pertains to the Jaquet-Droz Automata. Ingeniously engineered in 1768 by Pierre Jaquet-Droz (a talented clock-maker), his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, these ‘robots’ generally entail a group of three automaton designs: the Musician, the Draughtsman and the Writer. The Writer is arguably the most complex of the three automatons – with its ability to write any customized text form below forty letters or signs. To that end, while the core mechanism of this automation is somewhat similar to its ‘brethren’, the text can be probably coded on an internal wheel (which allows the characters to be selected one by one). As for the spectacular effect of the doll impersonating a real person, the Writer uses a goose feather to write, which he dips in ink from time to time, and shakes his wrist to prevent the ink from spilling. The scope of subtlety is further maintained by the automaton’s gaze that appropriately follows the text that ‘he’ is writing. These effects are aptly presented by the BBC video below –
As for The Musician, the intricate mechanism entails a female organ player who can actually play a musical instrument by ‘her’ own hands, as opposed to a passive source of music. And quite remarkably, the intrinsic mannerism of the automaton also mimics a human – with the heaving of chest as it ‘breaths’ and its eyes following the fingers on the instrument. The subtle movements of an organ player are also replicated by the robot as it periodically balances its torso with grace.
And lastly, The Draughtsman is designed as a young child who has the ability to draw four types of images – a dog with “Mon toutou” (“my doggy”) written beside it, a cupid driving a butterfly-harnessed chariot, a royal couple and a portrait of Louis XV. Fueled by three separate sets of cams that account for two-dimensional movement of the hand (along with lifting of the pencil), the automaton can mimic its human counterpart by periodically blowing on its pencil to remove the dust. And in case you are interested, you can take a gander at the short history of their creator Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his other creations, presented below in a video titled Jaquet-Droz Corporate Movie.
The article is mostly composed from excerpts of our previous article – 6 Automaton Conceptions From History You Should Know About.