200-Year-Old Robots That Play Music, Shoot Arrows & Even Write Poems: Watch Automatons in Action

The robots, as we all know, are com­ing for our jobs. We might regard that par­tic­u­lar anx­i­ety as dis­tinc­tive of the dig­i­tal age, but the idea of machines that per­form what we’ve long con­sid­ered specif­i­cal­ly human tasks has a long his­to­ry — as does the real­i­ty of those machines. The BBC video above offers a look at “The Writer,” which the New York Times’ Sonia Kolesnikov-Jes­sop describes as an “ear­ly humanoid robot of carved wood” who, “seat­ed at a small mahogany table, could write on paper using a goose­feath­er quill.” The date of this impres­sive curios­i­ty’s cre­ation? The decid­ed­ly pre-dig­i­tal year of 1768. The Writer has at his core a sys­tem of intri­cate clock­work, and so it stands to rea­son that its inven­tor Pierre Jaquet-Droz spent his career as a Swiss watch­mak­er.

“In the fol­low­ing years, work­ing with the help of his son, Hen­ri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, and his fel­low clock­mak­er Jean-Frédéric Leschot,” writes Kolesnikov-Jes­sop, “he also cre­at­ed The Musi­cian, a mechan­i­cal young woman who could play five tunes on an organ, and The Draughts­man, a ‘child’ able to draw four sep­a­rate images includ­ing that of a dog and a por­trait of a man.”

But The Writer, with its abil­i­ty to dip its quill in ink, its mov­ing eyes, and the wheel that makes it “pro­gram­ma­ble” to write any short mes­sage, remains both Jaquet-Droz’s most intri­cate and most impor­tant mechan­i­cal achieve­ment. You can see more pieces of his work, automa­tons and oth­er­wise, put into con­text in the short film just above, a pro­duc­tion of the Jaquet Droz lux­u­ry watch brand still in exis­tence today.

Upon hear­ing word of such “automa­tons,” oth­er inven­tors fol­lowed suit. Arti­fi­cial writ­ing remained a goal: more than forty years after The Writer, for instance, Hen­ri Mail­lardet built one capa­ble of “hand”-reproducing four draw­ings and three poems stored in its “brass mem­o­ry.” But oth­er automa­ton-builders had cho­sen to widen the field of mechan­i­cal capa­bil­i­ties: in 1784, the famed Ger­man cab­i­net­mak­er David Roent­gen pre­sent­ed to King Louis XVI a dul­cimer-play­ing automa­ton mod­eled after Queen Marie Antoinette. While the Queen thrilled to musi­cal per­for­mances from her own minia­ture like­ness, automa­ta made anoth­er kind of progress on the oth­er side of the world in Japan, a land that had almost no con­tact with the West until the mid-18th cen­tu­ry but whose tra­di­tions of craft stretch even deep­er into his­to­ry than Europe’s.

You can wit­ness in the video just above an unbox­ing, oper­a­tion, and inter­nal exam­i­na­tion of the best-known such Japan­ese karakuri, a spring-pow­ered archer that can load arrows into its bow and fire away. Its cre­ator Tana­ka Hisas­hige, also known as “the Thomas Edi­son of Japan,” built a fair few of these clock­work amuse­ments that still impress today, but also many more use­ful things, includ­ing a pneu­mat­ic fire pump, a uni­ver­sal clock, and the first Japan­ese steam loco­mo­tive and war­ship. His com­pa­ny Tana­ka Engi­neer­ing Works, found­ed in 1875, would lat­er evolve into the elec­tron­ics firm called Toshi­ba — devel­op­ers of Aiko Chi­hi­ra, who in 2015 became the world’s first robot­ic depart­ment-store employ­ee. Retail is one thing, but will her even more advanced descen­dants find it in them­selves to pick up the quill, the dul­cimer ham­mers, or the bow and arrow?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

MIT Cre­ates Amaz­ing Self-Fold­ing Origa­mi Robots & Leap­ing Chee­tah Robots

Isaac Asi­mov Explains His Three Laws of Robots

New Jorge Luis Borges-Inspired Project Will Test Whether Robots Can Appre­ci­ate Poet­ry

Autonomous Fly­ing Robots Play the Theme From the James Bond Movies

Two Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence Chat­bots Talk to Each Oth­er & Get Into a Deep Philo­soph­i­cal Con­ver­sa­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Giulia says:

    Very inter­est­ing and beau­ti­ful!!!
    I sug­gest to those inter­est­ed in such won­ders to search for infor­ma­tion on small doll cre­at­ed in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry by the Cre­mona genius Janel­lo Tor­ri­ani: a small mechan­i­cal doll, rep­re­sent­ing a woman who sound a tam­bourine, with gears that move mouth, eyes, head, feet and hands in addi­tion to mak­ing them a route that draws a five-point­ed star.

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