Automatons are robots built in the 18th century, and some are still alive.

Automatons versus Robots

An automaton is a self-operated machine designed to follow a predetermined sequence of operations, or respond to predetermined instructions.

A robot is a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.

So, the main differentiation is the complexity of the operations the robot can operate versus the automaton. Today’s robot do not seems to process much more operations to do basic movements, so the Skeleton worth the close look.

Some of the automatons we know

We can reasonably think that we lost most of the automatons build in the last centuries, but some of them survived long enough to be captured on video. If most was built more than 2 centuries ago, we still can find some, still working in small or larger museum across the Europe.

Marie Antoinette playing a dulcimer

This automaton was built in 1784 by the cabinetmaker David Roentgen (1743-1807) and was a gift for King Louis XVI.


In the same period of time, many automatons was built at all the scales: from human size to a ring. The precision and the complexity of the mechanisms and the timing was a great challenges 250 years ago!

In the scene below, filmed in 1950, multiple humanoid automatons was playing music in perfect synchronization. You can watch the 1:20 minutes video and listen to the original soundtrack here.


This scene shows an automaton acrobat jumping on a rope, while other are looking to the scene. Sky is the limit!



Automatons and Complexity

Automaton can demonstrate advanced skills in specific areas. Skeletons can do things that robots cannot do in the physical world today. However, the complexity is limited to the mechanisms but is a demonstration of how we can deal with complexity in the physical world.

The Writer, 1770 – Jaquet-Droz

In the 1770s, an automaton named “The Writer” was capable of drawing on a piece of paper with its 6000 moving parts.

The creator of this automaton, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, was watchmaker and at the top of the technology. An automaton is all about timed mechanisms, but also energy storage.

The mechanism, an analog computer

The mechanism is hidden in the body of the automaton. Build in 1770, this automaton contains a memory, a kind of operating system made of a clock, a programming language made of disks, and mechanical energy storage.

The automaton has 250 years old but is still alive in a small museum – Automatons

Automatons and Artificial Intelligence

Compared to the capabilities of a mobile phone, today’s robot are not very capable. The software is focused on the mobility, but not on the social behavior.

If those genius watchmakers would be alive today, would we be close to an Asimov like robot? A mobile phone like brain would be a good match.


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The three automatons

The automatons created by Pierre Jaquet-Droz and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz can be seen at the Museum of Art and History, Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

(Source: the museum)

On the 1st of May 1909, the Société d’histoire et d’archéologie du canton de Neuchâtel gave the three automata, created by Pierre Jaquet-Droz et Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz in the 18th century, to the museum.

The clock and watch-making industry, which started in the Neuchâtel mountains at the end of the 17th century, was making rapid strides at the 18th century. The latter became the centre of the clock industry in Switzerland and was to acquire a European reputation; thanks to the Jaquet-Droz, the Robert, the Roy and many other master craftsmen.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz

Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) was born at La Chaux-de-Fonds. After having acquired some knowledges of clock and watch-making, he studied theology at the University of Basel and then at the University of Neuchâtel. However, being interested in mathematics, he devoted himself to them and more especially to applied mechanics and to watch and clock-making.

Thus armed with a scientific culture much superior to that of his fellow artisans, he tackled the problems that fascinated him becoming the leading mechanician of his country and one of the greatest of his age.

Around 1747 the work of Pierre Jaquet-Droz was already known and admired in Europe by specialists and authorities. In 1758, accompanied by a workman and his father-in-law, Abram Louis Sandoz, he took several of his already famous masterpieces as far as Spain to the King’s court. The Jaquet-Droz rapidly became one of the most important firms, established not only at La Chaux-de-Fonds but also in Geneva, London and Paris.

Henri Louis  Jaquet-Droz (1752-1791), the son of Pierre-Jaquet Droz, worked with his father as assistant and worthy disciple at a very young age. He studied science and also developed his artistic tastes, especially music.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz worked with apprentices, among them a very talented technician, Jean-Frédéric Leschot (1746-1824), who became his right hand and took over the business after the death of the Jaquet-Droz father and son.

The three automatons : the Scribe, the Ladymusician and the Draughtsman

The works of Pierre Jaquet-Droz, Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz and a few assistants resulted in the birth of the three mechanical puppets now belonging to the museum.

In 1774, Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz show them to the public at La Chaux-deFonds with another piece La Grotte, a very complicated pastoral scene with many animated characters. The success of these automata was such that people flocked from everywhere to admire them “as on a pilgrimage”. On the same year, their creators took  them from one capital to another and show them to many Court of Europe as the Court of Louis XV in Paris, also in Brussels, London, Kazan in Russia, Madrid. Newspapers and posters record their journeying. In 1787, the Jaquet-Droz sold their automata to Spanish impresarios. In 1812 we found the prestigious automata in Paris. They traveled  again across Europe, without La Grotte which disappeared. In 1830, F.

Martin and H.-L. Bourquin bought them and traveled to Austria, Germany and Denmark with their “Museum of Illusions”. Carls Marfels, an German collector, bought them in 1904 and two years later resold the three automatons to the Société d’histoire et d’archéologie du canton de Neuchâtel, thanks to subsides of the Swiss Confederation and private donations. After a Swiss tour, the three automata created by the JaquetDroz, father and son, were definitively conserved in the Musée d’art et d’histoire de la ville de Neuchâtel since 1909.

The Scribe (l’Ecrivain)

The credit for the essential part of the Scribe’s internal construction must go to Pierre Jaquet-Droz. He designed it when his son was still an adolescent, but was assisted in his research by Jean-Frédéric Leschot and other skilled workmen.

The Scribe’s mechanism is extremely complex, much more intricate than those of the other two puppets. It is possible to set the mechanism in such a way the Scribe will write any programmed text of not more than forty letters or signs on a moving paper (as a typewriter).

The Ladymusician (La Musicienne)

She differs considerably from the other two : she is much bigger. She was born in the hands of Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz. The girl plays an organ with two bellows which pump air into 48 pipes. She breathes during her playing and finish each piece of music with a elegant bow. The five melodies she plays  were composed  by H.-L. Jaquet-Droz who had studied music. She really does play her instrument, contrary to most automata whose fingers only follow the keys while the instrument does the playing. This detail is further proof of the Jaquet-Droz’s genius.

The Draughtsman  (Le Dessinateur)

This child with a pen resembles his brother the Scribe, but there is a slight difference in his attitude because his paper remains immobile and the hand moves allover the paper.

The Draughtsman, who can draw 4 different motives, was made chiefly by Henri Jaquet-Droz, with the precious assistance of Jean-Frédéric Leschot and three expert workmen. The automaton was completed in the relatively short time of two years (1772-1774). The Draughtsman’s performance is more spectacular than the Scribe’s. His mechanism is however far less complicated than that of the Scribe.

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