Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Philadelphia's Boy Robot - The Franklin Institute Automaton

Unerring is my hand, tho small,
may I not add with truth?
I do my best to please you all.
Encourage, then, my youth.

The above poem, though lovely in its own right, is made extraordinary by its author: a clockwork robot from 1810!

The automaton that is the focus of this article is the handiwork of Henri Maillardet (1745-?), who constructed it in London in 1810.  The boy machine was the most complicated mechanical automaton ever made, having a series of brass cogs as its "memory" which stored 4 pictures and 3 poems.  The marvel of clockwork ingenuity was lost to time until a truck pulled up to The Franklin Institute in 1928.  Donated by a wealthy Philadelphian, John Penn Brock, the machine arrived at the muselm in a completey non-functional state, and without a word about its origin or purpose.

It was only once technicians repaired the automaton that the veil of mystery surrounding it would be lifted.  Once wound by the museum staff, the device began to draw, and signed its work "written by the automaton of Maillardet."

The mystery was solved: This was the "Draughtsman Writer" of Henri Maillardet.  The machine was exhibited across Europe for 50 years, and may have been brought to America by P. T. Barnum (of circus fame), before being damaged in a fire and eventually passing into the possession of the family who would eventually donate it.

If the story of a mysterious automaton of unknown origin being lovingly restored by a clockworker, then revealing the mystery of its creation in its own handwriting, it should.  The writing machine was the inspiration for the book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick, later adapted to film by Martin Scorsese.

The automaton can be seen at The Franklin Institute, on the 2nd floor, in the "Amazing Machine" exhibit.   It is occasionally taken out of its glass case for demonstrations, in which he will draw 4 pictures and write 3 poems.  Copies of the automaton's art are available during these demonstrations.

Contact The Franklin Institute to see if a demonstration will take place during your visit.  The museum is primarily intended as a science education facility for school-aged children.

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