Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Amazing Automaton!

Even though it makes me feel like a blue haired retiree to admit it, CBS Sunday Morning has become one of the best parts of my weekends spent at home. Brewing a tall mug of Vanilla Cinnamon tea and snuggling down on the couch to see what sweet special interest story good ol' Charles Osgood has got on the docket always makes me feel like there is truly no better way to start my week. And this last episode was no exception. They did a great piece on the automaton that inspired Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret that inspired Martin Scorsese's film Hugo. 

"The Draughtsman-Writer" as it is known today, originally arrived at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute in 1928 as a jumbled pile of broken brass pieces. Once it was assembled and put into working order again, the spring-activated automaton drew four pictures and wrote three poems (two in French, one in English), qualifying it as having the largest "memory" in automaton history. It was when the machine first penned one of its poems that it revealed its maker to be Henri Maillardet, a Swiss clockmaker and mechanic, finally leading researchers to determine that it was built in 1805.

One of the poems that reads across the bottom: 
"written by the automaton of Maillardet"

One of the automaton's cherubic drawings

While falling down the virtual rabbit hole in my research, I discovered an even more interesting apparatus that was made by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739. Canard DigĂ©rateur, or Digesting Duck, was billed (ha!) as a mechanical duck that could eat grain, drink water, metabolize, and defecate. Such a scientific wonder! 

What actually happened, however, was that the food was collected in a secret chamber inside while pre-stored duck poop would be ejected out the other end---that's right: no actual digestion took place. My question though is whose job was it to collect all the poop and jam it up the robot duck's butt until it was time to squirt it out again? Not it!

There was another phony automaton peddled around that time created by one Wolfgang von Kempelen. Known as "The Turk," it was a chess-playing "machine" that was actually operated by a chess master who sat hidden inside. It was designed in such a way that the man inside could slide out of view whenever the demonstrator opened any door to show the audience the working parts within. Sounds like quite the small and powerful Oz. 

Clearly the most impressive automatons are the ones that actually do what they say they're going to do, without any bait-and-switches or strings attached. But I'm not sure they make for as interesting a story.

- Cathleen

[Images courtesy of Cubic MuseThe Franklin Institute, and Wikipedia]

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