Pierre Jaquet-Droz

If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.
Albert Einstein

Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1758
Pierre Jaquet-Droz in 1758

Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) was a celebrated Swiss watchmaker and mechanic from the 18th century, known for his elaborate watches and mechanical devices, three of which are of particular interest in the context of this site—the humanoid automata the Writer, the Draftsman, and the Musician.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz was born in 1721 into a family of watchmakers and farmers. Still a teenager, in 1738 he set up his first watchmaking workshop at the family farm, in his native La Chaux-de-Fonds, canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. His initial works were on pendulum clocks, but at some moment he decided to specialize in automatic mechanisms, in which he would soon excel. Jaquet-Droz was attracted by automaton mechanisms and their technical difficulties and, sensitive to the admiration of some customers, soon specialized in their production. In 1753 he traveled to Paris and after the successful demonstrations, he dealt with the marketing of his pieces and strove to improve their mechanisms.

In 1758—1759 Pierre Jaquet-Droz undertook an unprecedented journey to Spain, traveling across southern Europe with his wares with a view to presenting them to the Court of Spain and its King Ferdinand VI. In Spain, he demonstrated not only his elaborate watches but also a few automata. Among them was a clock with a shepherd playing on a flute, and a dog guarding a basket of apples. When the King endeavored to take one of the apples, the dog threw himself on his hand, barking so naturally, that a hound present in the room responded all his strength. At this moment the Courtiers, not doubting that it was an affair of witchcraft, hastily left the room, crossing themselves as they went out. The Minister of Marine was the only one that ventured to stay. Later the Minister asked the shepherd what time is it, but did not receive an answer. Jaquet-Droz remarked that he probably did not understand Spanish and asked the King to address him in French. The question was repeated and the shepherd replied immediately, and the frightened Minister hurried away. Later Jaquet-Droz, fearing that he might be arrested by the Inquisition as a sorcerer, invited the Grand Inquisitor and revealed the inner mechanism of his devices, demonstrating that the mechanism was moved entirely by natural means. Jaquet-Droz’s so-called “Shepherd’s Clock” is still on display in one of the King of Spain’s palace museums.

The Writer automaton of Jaquet-Droz (© Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel)
The Writer automaton of Jaquet-Droz (© Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel)

From his trip to Spain Jaquet-Droz returned rich and famous because the delighted King not only refunded the expenses of the journey but paid in addition 500 luis d’or. Jaquet-Droz invested the raised money in the development of his enterprise, establishing a specialized company in the creation of top-of-the-range parts, to the forefront of technological advance. Mainly, they are small parts decorated with automats, and they soon ensure an abundance of cash to Jaquet-Droz and allow him to launch the ambitious project of the automats androids.

From 1767 to 1774, he led the construction of three extremely complex androids: the Writer, the Lady Musician, and the Draftsman. These automata were toured throughout Europe and would win their creator even greater acclaim.

Pierre Jaquet-Droz was later assisted in the running of his business and the construction of the automata by his son Henri-Louis (1752-1791) and by several other young clockmaking mechanics like his adopted son Jean-Frédéric Leschot (1746-1824), Henri Maillardet and Jacob Frisard (1753-1812). The young Jaquet-Droz, Henri-Louis, was also a very gifted mechanic, who completed his studies in mathematics, physics, drawing, and music in Nancy, and returned to Switzerland in 1769 to join his father. Pierre put him in charge of his project of automats, which comprises a “Cave” (disappeared today), and the three android automata—the Writer, the Musician, and the Draftsman. There is a story for Henri-Louis, when he was in Paris in 1775, he constructed artificial hands for a man, who had been born with deformed hands, almost totally dysfunctional. The artificial hands allowed the invalid to lead a normal life. Jacques Vaucanson saw this mechanical masterpiece and reportedly said to him, “Young man, you start where I would like to finish.”

In 1783 Jaquet-Droz opened a second workshop in London, later in Geneva, but then he gradually withdrew from the management of his business and received visitors from the whole of Europe who came to admire his work and pay their respects to him. Pierre Jaquet-Droz lived with his son in Geneva for a few years before retiring to Bienne where he died on 28 November 1790, only a year before his son.

The Draftsman automaton of Jaquet-Droz (© Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel)
The Draftsman automaton of Jaquet-Droz (© Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel)

What first of all distinguishes these three automats from those which are manufactured at that time, is that their mechanism is placed inside their body and not in the piece of furniture on which they sat. It is to say that the genius of precision goes from pairing with the miniaturization of the mechanical wheels, making the synchronization of the movements all the more complicated.

The Writer (see the upper image), completed in 1772, was directed primarily by Pierre Jaquet-Droz and is the most complicated of the three mechanisms. The android, made of 6000 pieces, is sitting on a Louis-XV-style stool, holding a quill (goose feather) that dips into the inkwell, and then he shakes it slightly before beginning to draw letters on paper with the pen. The automaton can move its head and eyes as it composes, and it is able to compensate for changes in distance between the figure and the desk so that the letters remain evenly spaced. The Writer is able to write a text of 40 characters maximum, spread over four lines. Over time the device has been programmed to write different messages, which have included “Les automates Jaquet Droz à Neuchâtel” and “I think therefore I am.”

In the upper half of the Writer’s body is a long vertical cylinder, made up of three sets of 40 cams. One set of cams controls the horizontal movements, another the vertical movements, and a third the amount of pressure the Writer applies to the paper, thus enabling it to make both light and heavy strokes, just like in the real human script. Beneath the vertical cylinder, the second part of the mechanism incorporates a disk with 40 spaces on it, so that the order of characters can be selected for the Writer’s message. The main mechanism of the invention is the programming system disk (shown in the lower part of the image), which allows him to write text without external intervention. It is also possible to make him write any words, letter by letter. The Writer might even be interrupted, stopping in the middle of the word, if asked, and writing another.

The Draftsman (see the nearby image) had an appearance very similar to the Writer, but its design is technically simpler than its big brother (made of only 2000 pieces). It was produced mainly by Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz and Jean-Frédéric Leschot. Using a pencil, he is able to perform four different designs through three sets of cams home: A portrait of the French King—Louis XV; A drawing of a dog with an inscription; A Cupid in a chariot pulled by a butterfly; And a portrait of the royal couple Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (the portrait of Louis XV and My doggy are on the same cams). Small bellows concealed in the head of the Draftsman allowed him occasionally to blow the dust off his paper. From time to time the Draftsman was able also to raise his hand to examine his work better and to correct some defect. Apparently, the machine can be easily “reprogrammed”, by changing the cams, because when it was demonstrated in England, it draw the image of the English monarch, not the French King.

The Musician automaton of Jaquet-Droz (© Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel)
The Musician automaton of Jaquet-Droz (© Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel)

The Musician (see the nearby image) was made of 2500 pieces and was very different from the two other androids. It was a young thin girl, 1 meter 80 tall, sitting outside a small organ flutes. It has a mechanism that activates his ten fingers, it actually plays his instrument. The five different melodies that it is capable of playing seem to have been composed by Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, who was not only a skillful mechanic, but also a gifted musician. The mechanism is quite complex, consisting of four parts that actuate the bellows of the instrument, each hand of the musician, and actions such as breathing schedules, nods, eye movements, or the final reference. The first part of the mechanism, completely independent, the harmonium, laid at the base of the musical instrument, acts on two bellows which prove compressed air to the flutes. The three other mechanisms are under the seat. They are connected between them and start one another to form a very complicated group. The girl is stressing her movements when she plays, looks on the left, on the right, and finishes with a curtsey.

Droz's Singing Bird Automaton
A singing bird automaton of Jaquet-Droz, circa 1780

Let’s examine one of Droz’s singing bird automata, made circa 1780 (see the nearby image). It is made of gilt bronze and painted on enamel, with eight-day going, center seconds, hanging bird cage clock with an automaton bird, singing seven tunes on the hour and half-hour or at will. It has an octagonal gilt bronze cage (Dim. 50 x 28 cm) with eight turned pillars and vase finials, pierced and engraved side panels. On the base, white enamel with radial Roman numerals, outer minute track, Arabic five-minute numerals, arbor for the regulator. Pierced and engraved gilt brass hour and minute hands, blued steel center seconds hand. The clock movement: Rectangular brass plates measuring 105 x 70 mm, fusee, and chain, verge escapement, three-arm brass balance, blued steel flat balance spring, pierced cock covering the balance, blued steel endplate. The clock commands the striking, serinette, and singing bird functions automatically on the hour and half-hour. The serinette: Comprises a going train, fusee, and chain transmission, the wheel train terminates to an endless screw on a flywheel, the 2 wings of which are adjustable. This wheel train drives the bellows and the brass cylinder, 55 x 130 mm, the pins activating 10 levers that command the opening of 10 pewter pipes seven different tunes may be manually selected, by means of a wheel on one of the sides. A silent pull-stop is located on one of the sides. A pull cord commands the serinette and bird at will. The winding hole for the serinette is located on one of the sides. The bird has blue, black, and white plumage, pivoting, with a moving beak and tail. The bird’s functions are programmed by a particular portion of the serinette’s cylinder which engages several small levers; the bird’s rotation is driven by a rod connected to the going train.

The astonishing automated mechanisms of Jaquet-Droz fascinated the world’s most important people: the royal families of Europe, China, India, and Japan. The automata were initially exposed in Chaux-de-Fonds, attracting an important crowd (writers of the day reported that people flocked from all over the country to see such extraordinary works of whimsy and technical skill), but the dedication will come with the road show: Geneva (1774), Paris (1775), then Brussels, London, Russia and Madrid, where the automata will be sold to a collector in 1787. From Spain, the automata will return to Paris around 1812, to be admired at the Paris Exposition of 1825. In 1830 Martin and Bourquin bought the machines and will walk them through the whole of Europe until 1904, using them as the principal attraction of their Museum of the Illusions. The History and Archeology Society of Neuchâtel, helped by a grant from the Swiss federal government, eventually bought the three automata in 1906, for 75000 francs in gold, and gave them to the Museum of Art and History of Neuchâtel, where they have been ever since, in virtually the same condition as when they were first made, some 230 years ago.

Biography of Pierre Jaquet-Droz

Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790)
Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790), a portrait from 1758

Pierre Jaquet-Droz was born on 28 July 1721, on a small farm (La Ferme de Sur le Pont) north-east of La Chaux-de-Fonds, canton of Neuchâtel in Switzerland (then part of the Kingdom of Prussia), to the family of Abraham (Abram) Jaquet-Droz (1686-1767) and Marie-Madeleine née Droz. Pierre was named after his grandfather, the merchant Pierre Jaquet-Droz (who died in 1718 at the age of 95), and had an elder sister, Suzanne-Marie (1713-1741). La Chaux-de-Fonds would become a major watch- and clockmaking center in the 19th century, and at the time of Pierre’s birth, the region already had many clockmakers. His father, Abraham, divided his time between agriculture and watchmaking (he tinker and repair watches during the winter months), and other relatives, including his maternal grandfather, Daniel Droz (who lived on the same family farm), were watchmakers, as were many of the family’s friends.

Abraham Jaquet-Droz wanted his son to become a clergyman, so Pierre was educated first to elementary level in his town, then in 1738 he enrolled Collège d’Érasme in Basel, where besides courses in theology and philosophy, he takes classes in mathematics and physics, given by the famous father and son Jean and Daniel Bernoulli. The Bernoullis were interested in the construction of unusual automatic machines, so it is probably they who whetted Jaquet-Droz’s own curiosity about such devices. By 1740 Pierre continued his education at l’Académie de Neuchâtel. During this time he was also influenced by a fellow Chaux-de-Fonnier named Josué Robert (the son of Robert married Pierre’s sister). Josué Robert was born in 1691 and worked in Chaux de Fonds until his death in 1771. He was a Clockmaker to the King of Prussia from 1725 and founder of the firm J. Robert et Fils. Although Robert did not himself train Jaquet-Droz, he guided him through his early career.

Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz (1752-1791)
Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz (1752-1791)

In 1738, Jaquet-Droz crafted his first movement. Two years later, he began a seven-year apprenticeship. As a person, he was sober, serious, taciturn, and very careful in his work. His reputation as a gifted clockmaker grew. The year his apprenticeship ended, he received an important honor: Monsieur de Nathalys, governor of Neuchâtel and representative of the King of Prussia, came to La Chaux-de-Fonds to see one of his clocks. Jaquet-Droz was soon making frequent trips to Paris, learning from the many prominent watchmakers there. Among them was Ferdinand Berthoud (1727-1807), who would later become one of the first great chronometer makers.

In October 1750, Jaquet-Droz married 19 years-old Marie-Anne (Marianne), daughter of the La Chaux-de-Fonds Civil Lieutenant and cabinet maker Abram-Louis Sandoz-Gendre and Anna-Maria Robert (a niece of Josué Robert)‏. They moved into a new house and workshop where their three children were born: Julie (1751-1806), Henri-Louis (13.10.1752-15.11.1791), and Charlotte (1755-1756). But tragedy struck soon, as in December 1755 Marianne died after giving birth to Charlotte, and Charlotte herself died soon after. Jaquet-Droz never remarried, devoting himself entirely to clockmaking, and his children were brought up by their aunt and maternal grandparents.

These deaths were followed by one of the brightest moments in Jaquet-Droz’s career. A local enameller introduced him to the new governor of Neuchâtel, Lord George Keith (1693-1778). Keith, a Scot, had close ties to Spain (he had served as ambassador there for the Jacobites and would do so again, from 1759 to 1761, for Frederick the Great of Prussia). Recognizing Jaquet-Droz’s extraordinary ability, Keith arranged for him to show some of his works to the Spanish king, Ferdinand VI. The king was fascinated by mechanical devices and was said to go around his rooms, personally setting each of his clocks with a key. The presentation was a triumph, and for the six mechanisms (all of which were purchased for the royal palaces of Madrid and Villaviciosa), Jaquet-Droz was paid 2000 gold pistoles, a fortune at the time. He returned to La Chaux-de-Fonds in March 1759 and used the funds to expand his workshop.

Jean-Frederic Leschot (1746-1824)
Jean-Frederic Leschot (1746-1824), a genius watchmaker and mechanic. Apprentice and adopted son of Pierre Jaquet-Droz.

Sparked by the success of the automata, the family business grew far beyond Neuchâtel. In 1774, Henri-Louis opened up a branch of the business in London which focused on selling Jaquet-Droz timepieces and automata to China. Lavishly decorated watches, often sold in pairs, were in high demand there, and Jaquet-Droz became one of the country’s key suppliers, but also in the Middle East and India.

Henri-Louis’s health declined in the 1780s, and he returned to Switzerland in 1784. Working with Jean-Frédéric Leschot (a neighbor’s son, whom Pierre had taken in after the death of the boy’s mother and thought of as his adoptive son), he opened a workshop in Geneva. The company’s headquarters remained in La Chaux-de-Fonds, overseen by Pierre Jaquet-Droz. Producing automata (especially the popular singing-bird mechanisms), clocks, and watches through its various offices, the Jaquet-Droz company reached the peak of its success in 1786 and 1787.

Its decline soon followed. As Pierre’s health deteriorated, he retreated to Bienne, where he died on 24 November 1790. He is buried in the city cemetery there. Only a year later, Henri-Louis died in Naples, where he had gone with his wife in an effort to improve his fragile health. Leschot was left in charge of the business and struggled to maintain it until his own death in 1824.