Friedrich von Knaus

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!
Alice in Wonderland

Friedrich von Knaus(s) (1724-1789)
Friedrich von Knaus(s) (1724-1789)

Friedrich von Knaus(s) (1724-1789), was a German watchmaker, mechanic, and inventor, who built clockwork mechanisms that could, in a simple way, play musical instruments, write short phrases, or conduct other individual, specialized tasks. It is believed, that namely, Knaus created the first writing automaton.

Showing his capabilities at an early age, working in the workshop of his elder brother, Friedrich von Knaus was engaged with the Darmstadt great duke’s court as Kammerdiener and Hofmechanicus. Then he was taken to the service of the Prince-voter Clément Auguste of Cologne. Later Knaus went to Paris, where in 1753 presented his first writing automata to the French King Louis XV, but without success. So he moved to Holland and Belgium, where he came on the duty of the Prince Charles of Lorraine in Bruxelles, and then in 1756 he came to Vienna, where in 1757 he established the Physikalisches Hofkabinett (“Court Cabinet of Physics”), of which he was appointed President. In 1757, Knaus completed work on a mechanical musician that played the flageolet, a kind of recorder. Some of his most famous constructs were four mechanical speaking heads in 1770; however, they were not very successful. Among his other inventions are a writing desk for the Emperor with a copy machine and “movable picture panels”.

Knaus made several (at least five) writing automata of which the first was presented in France in 1753. In his earlier examples, the writing was merely traced by a hand holding a pen. The fourth writing automaton however had significant improvements, as it was a true writer (a figure) able to write lengthy text. Knaus presented it in 1760 to the Holy Roman Emperor Francis Stephen.

Knaus' writing automaton
Knaus’ writing hand automaton, 1764

The automata, shown in the nearby figure, was made by Knaus in 1764 and was donated to his patron Prince Charles of Lorraine. The clockwork mechanism moves a hand, causing it to dip the pen in the inkstand and write the words “Huic Domui Deus / Nec metas rerum / Nec tempora ponat” (May God not impose ends or deadlines on this house) on a small card. The mechanism’s (made of silvered copper with dimensions 68 cm width, 100 cm height) silvered metal coating carries the words “Pro patria” (for motherland).

None of the mechanisms of Knaus’ most advanced writing automata (see the figure below) was contained in the body of the figure, but enclosed in a metal sphere on which the figure was placed. The principal mechanism constitutes a horizontal roll composed of pins, introduced into appropriate openings. When moving, the pins press on a keyboard containing keys, each key corresponding to a letter. The machine wrote a lengthy passage of 107 words and antedated the similar machine of Jacquet-Droz by almost two decades.

While the first three machines produced a programmed text, the fourth, preserved to the present day in Vienna (Wien, Technisches Museum), could write any phrase composed in advance, and it could also write to dictation by means of a hand-operated control on the letter keyboard. The machine is called the Miraculous Writing Machine, or simply the Writer.

After having drawn some characters, the Writer automatically dips his feather in the inkpot in front of him. A special mechanism located behind moves the shelf towards the left after each letter; when a line is finished, the shelf is pushed at the same time in the horizontal and vertical directions.

Knaus' Miraculous Writing Machine, 1760
Knaus’ Miraculous Writing Machine, 1760

During his show in front of Emperor Franz I, on 4 October 1760, the Writer of von Knaus filled the Emperor and the entire Court with wonder, by writing under his eyes the following headwork in French:
Dear Sir, do me the honor of listening to me and to what I am writing for you. The world thought that I would never be perfected by my maker, he was even so persecuted, that it was possible: but now, he put me into such a state that I write all languages, despite all his envious people, and I am truly, Dear Lord, the most loyal secretary.

Von Knaus’ masterpiece (overall dimensions: 182 × 107 × 98 cm) was an imposing piece set on a 3-inch high wood pedestal. It measures almost 1.9 meters from the ground to the writer’s head. There is a large metal sphere about 80 cm across, with six opening sectors, which contains the mechanism for writing and is supported by two bronze eagles. The mechanism is cast iron. Originally, it was gold-colored and the meridian circles were shown by meshes of silver. Over the sphere, on a platform imitating a cloud, on the right side, sat a goddess, from who a little genius is getting inspired.

In the center, a little shelf is erecting a vertical little table, which supports the sheet of paper on which the automaton, with its quite long arm, writes the characters previously printed on a cylinder. At each end of the line, the goddess puts up her hand and the sheet of paper moves, thus ensuring to start again a new line. The entire sheet of paper is covered in fifteen minutes. After having written several characters, the writer automatically dips his quill into the ink pot which is in front of him. A special mechanism situated at the rear side moves the little table to the left after each letter. When a line is finished, the little table is pushed both in the horizontal and vertical directions.

If the cylinder is taken out of the mechanism, the operator can manually operate the levers register, thus “dictating” to the writer what we want him to write.

Biography of Friedrich von Knaus

Friedrich von Knaus(s) was born on 7 April 1724, in Aldingen near Ludwigsburg, now a suburb of Stuttgart, in the family of Johann Peter Knauß II (1689–1742), the son of Johann Peter Knauß, a schoolmaster in Berwangen and Anna Barbara Hüß, and his wife Anna Margarethe Knaus (1689–1756), the daughter of master craftsman Hans Balthasar Nollenberger from Ottmarsheim and Ursula Scheunig. Johann Peter Knaus II was a watchmaker and schoolmaster in Ottmarsheim, from 1715 in Hößlinsülz near Heilbronn, from 1726 Baronial Kaltental court clerk, schoolmaster, and organist in Aldingen, allegedly the last secretary of the Counts of Wied and Isenburg. He married Anna Margarethe Nollenberger on 30 September 1713 in Erligheim, and his first child, Johann Philip Ludwig was born on 29 September 1715 in Hößlinsülz. Johann Ludwig also became a prominent watchmaker and worked together with his brother Friedrich on several automata.

From 1739 into the 1750s, von Knauss was busy with the Darmstadt great duke’s court, and in 1749 he became “Hofmechaniker”, Imperial and Royal Court Mechanician. Together with his brother, he produced the famous Kaiserliche Vorstellungsuhr (the Imperial Representation Watch) in 1750, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Maria Theresia’s rise to the throne. Some of his most famous constructs were four mechanical speaking heads in 1770, however, they were not very successful. A contest for mechanicians and organ manufacturers held in 1779 in Russia attests to their lack of success, in that the contest, held by the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, used the production of a speaking head as the theme, and specified that the machine be capable of speaking the five vowels.

When in 1760 after the demonstration of his remarkable writing automaton Knaus asked to be appointed Hofrat for his invention, he fell out of favor and was only able to return to court after the death of Franz I (1765). Besides his writing automata, among his other inventions are a desk for the emperor with a copying machine for copying important decrees, as well as his “movable picture boards”. Until his death, he was tirelessly involved in the design of new machines, not only clockwork and automata but also mining machines.

Knaus married Catharina Reutter von Reiterswinkel (died in Vienna on 3.2.1804), from Strassburg. They had a daughter, Maria Theresia, who married Jakob Josef Rittig von Flammenstern, government secretary in Vienna. Knaus had acquired the title of nobility himself.

In 1778, Friedrich von Knaus was requested as an artillery captain (Hauptman) in Vienna, where he died on 14 August 1789. At the time of his death, he bore the title Director of the physical and mathematical cabinets at the Hofburg and golden knight, also holy papal and lateranian palatine count.