The best way to explain it is to do it.
Alice In Wonderland
Around 1800, the Swiss mechanician and clockmaker Henri Maillardet (1745-1830), who worked then in London, created an extraordinary automaton, known today as the “Draughtsman-Writer”. Maillardet’s machine had the largest “memory” (cam-based) of any such machine ever constructed, enough to create four drawings and three poems (two in French and one in English), producing a drawing or poem in about three minutes.
The “Draughtsman-Writer” (see the nearby image), still preserved in the Franklin Institute science museum in Philadelphia, is a spring-activated automaton that draws pictures and writes verses in both French and English. It was made of brass, steel, wood, and fiber, and has dimensions: 147 × 88 × 57 cm, weight 181.4 kg. The motions of the hand are produced by a series of 72 stacked cams located on shafts in the base of the automaton, which produce the necessary movement to complete seven sketches and the text. As steel levers follow hills and valleys cut into the edges of the rotating cams, the right hand moves smoothly along three axes—side to side, to and fro, up and down. An additional pair of cams at one end of the stack controls the movements of the head and by clever extensions the eyes, eyelids, and left hand.
In the early 1800s, Henri Maillardet traveled around exhibiting his automata throughout England and in several European cities. For example, on 21 November 1821, in Freeman’s Journal (a Dublin paper) it appeared a long advertisement beginning thus:
MOST respectfully informs the Nobility, Gentry, &c. &c. of Dublin and its Vicinity, that he has opened for their inspection, AT THE ROTUNDA, CAVENDISH-ROW, HIS MECHANICAL MUSEUM Containing the following Automaton Figures:
There follows a long list, with details of the actions of some of the figures, which included La Belle Roxalana (a musical lady), The Juvenile Artist, The Little Spaniard, an animated Rope Dancer, An Old Necromancer, a hummingbird, a Phenomenon Automaton Pedestrian, a beautiful gold serpent, a Siberian mouse, an Ethiopian caterpillar, an Egyptian lizard, and an aranea.
The Juvenile Artist automaton, mentioned above, was obviously our Draughtsman-Writer. Later Maillardet made another automaton that could write, it wrote in Chinese and was made for the Emperor of China as a gift from King George III of England. The Draughtsman-Writer plays a crucial supporting role in the Martin Scorsese film, “Hugo,” and in the 2007 illustrated novel the film was based on, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick.
The Siberian Mouse (see the nearby image) is perhaps the most active and realistic in action of the small animal automata exhibited by Henri Maillardet in England and Ireland in the early 19th century. Of life-size (the body is 5.5 cm. long, and the tail is 7 cm. long), this gold, nylon, pearl, and enamel-made automaton mouse darts forward, twirls nervously fearing a concealed cat, then scampers in a different direction before, reassured, it pauses to nibble at an invisible morsel and sets off once again. When a button below the perky mesh tail is pressed the mouse skitters, twirls, and pauses to sniff the air and nibble in a most realistic manner.
Biography of Henri Maillardet
Jean Henri Nicholas Maillardet was born in Meyriez (the canton of Fribourg) in Switzerland on 19 November 1745, as the second son of Henri (1720-1758) and Marguerite Maillardet (born Kolbe in 1721). Henri married Marguerite in 1739, and they had five children. He was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, canton of Neuchâtel, and served as a community leader (mayor) of the nearby municipality of Fontaines. La Chaux-de-Fonds would become a major watch- and clockmaking center in the 19th century, and at the time of Henri’s birth, the region already had many clockmakers. Henri and his two brothers are said to have been trained in the Jaquet-Droz workshops before establishing themselves as clockmakers in the village of Fontaines, then from 1768 until 1770 Henri together with his younger brother Jean-David worked as pendulistes in Königliche Uhrenfabrik in Berlin for Abraham Louis Huguenin.
By 1770 Henri Maillardet already worked for Pierre Jacquet-Droz and together with his son Henri-Louis, and his apprentices Jean-Frédéric Leschot and Jacob Frisard took part in the construction of three androids, which were finished in 1774, when Jaquet-Droz presented the automata (the Writer, the Artist, and the Musician) to the public in La Chaux-de-Fond.
In the middle 1770s, Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz opened his own production studio in Geneve. The bulk of the production was destined for the Chinese market. When in May 1783 Jaquet-Droz opened a branch in London, the management of the studio in Bartlett’s Building took Henri Maillardet. In 1790, drafts made on their principal correspondent in China came back unpaid and their main client in London failed, putting the company in the red. The partnership with Jaquet-Droz had to be liquidated, but Maillardet directed the workshop in London until 1815.
Henri Maillardet’s brothers—Jaques-Rodolphe (1743-1828) and Jean-David (23.05.1748-15.11.1834), also worked in the field of automatics in their brother’s studio in London, before returning to Fontaines. Jean-David Maillardet became a famous clockmaker and automatist, and worked some time in Berlin, then established himself in Fontaines where he became a friend of Jacquet-Droz. He built many automata together with his brothers, in particular magicians. The Maillardets’ other creations included a series of beautifully automated caterpillars or silkworms.
Henri Maillardet married in 1784 to Jeanne Louise Catherine Mourer, born in 1750 in Lausanne. Two sons from this marriage are known—Edward Frederick (born in 1786 in London, became a dentist), Henry Lewis (b. 1791), and daughter, Louisa Henrietta (1785-1817).
After the death of Pierre Jacquet-Droz and his son, the years between 1791 and 1798 were spent by Leschot in Geneva and Maillardet in London, attempting unsuccessfully to recreate the earlier successes of Jaquet-Droz and Leschot. By 1798, Henri Maillardet seems to have changed direction and set himself up as a showman. He took over the former premises of Cox’s Museum, the Great Promenade Rooms in Spring Gardens. Here, gradually acquiring new attractions, he showed his Wonderful Automatons… consisting of the Mechanical Musical Lady; the entertaining Fortune-Teller; the pleasing Tumbler; and the wonderful Writing Boy, with the beautiful Singing Bird in a Gold Snuff-box. Also a Siberian mouse etc., etc.
Sadly, although apparently retaining a financial interest in the collection of automata for many years as it was taken on a tour around Britain and Europe by various successors, Maillardet fell on hard times and died in penury in Mechelen, Belgium, on 23 August 1830.