At the Neuchatel Museum of Art and History west of Bern, Switzerland, a three-year-old barefoot boy sits before a mahogany desk, writing full letters with a goose feather quill in its right hand. What at first glance looks like a charming toy doll is actually an engineering wonder: the ancestor of the modern computer. Look closer and you can see its eyes following its work. It shakes the quill pen after dipping it into the inkstand.
Built by Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jacquet-Droz in the late 1770s, The Writer’s 6,000 custom-made components work in concert to create a fully self-contained programmable writing machine. The boy is animated by a crank that winds up the mainsprings. It can write any custom text of up to 40 letters long with a maximum of four lines, thanks to 40 cams that function like a read-only program. This programming system disk allows it to write without any external intervention. The Writer can even be interrupted in the middle of a line, and be made to compose another.
Jacquet-Droz had always dazzled with his automata. In the court of King Ferdinand VI of Spain, people were convinced that his lifelike creations were the work of witchcraft. To escape the charge of sorcery by the Inquisition, Jacquet-Droz invited the Grand Inquisitor to examine his robot and its inner mechanism to satisfy himself that it moved by purely natural means.
The Writer is one of a trio of androids Jacquet-Droz built from 1767 to 1774. The other two, less complex than The Writer, are the Lady Musician and the Draftsman. What makes these robots especially remarkable was the use of miniaturization. All the mechanisms that operate the androids are enclosed within their bodies, not on a piece of furniture accompanying the tableau, as was usual. This miniaturization made synchronization of all pieces more difficult, which makes the robots, which still work after more than 200 years, all the more awesome.
When I see something like this, I realize that we don't give anywhere near the credit to the inventors and craftsmen of the past that they deserve. So much of what we create today is built on the foundations laid by these great men, don't you think?
Coffee out on the patio this morning!