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Introducing the Draughtsman-Writer automaton

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Following the departure of the Silver Swan back to The Bowes Museum in County Durham, ‘Robots’ Lead Curator Ben Russell introduces its replacement within the exhibition, the ‘Draughtsman-Writer’.

Henri Maillardet Draughtsman-Writer Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, USA,

The Draughtsman-Writer c.1800

The Science Museum is delighted to have borrowed, from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, USA, one of the most amazing automatons ever built.

The ‘Draughtsman-Writer’ automaton was built by Henri Maillardet in about 1800. It is one of the most remarkable examples from a whole generation of machines designed to imitate life. Some could play musical instruments like the flute, others moved with tremendous subtlety, appearing to gently breathe, show emotion, or even turn to acknowledge their audience as they performed.

The ‘Draughtsman-Writer’ could write: using a specially-designed pen, it could commit to paper four drawings and three poems, in English and French. The details of each were physically programmed into a huge array of ‘cams’, each intricately formed to a particular shape. The automaton’s mechanism converted the cams’ motions into the movements of the childlike writer above, who would commit them to paper. The automaton had the biggest mechanical memory of any machine made at this time.

The automaton arrived at the Franklin Institute in a very poor condition in November 1928, and much of the story of where it had been was unclear. It had travelled in England and across Europe, but then disappeared before being rediscovered in the USA. It was carefully and intricately conserved, and returned to working order.

At first, it was not clear who had built the Automaton. However, when it was first set to work again at the Franklin Institute, at the conclusion of the final poem it wrote ‘Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet’ – ‘Written by the Automaton of Maillardet’. Amazingly, the secret of its maker had been preserved inside the automaton’s mechanical mind.

The Draughtsman-Writer will be displayed in the Science museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition until 3 September 2017. For tickets please visit sciencemuseum.org.uk/robots


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Written by Ben Russell