The writer automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz


BBC four - mechanical marvels - clockwork dreams - the writer automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz

The short clip below is from the BBC Four documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on the history of automata, narrated by Prof. Simon Schaffer. It shows a mechanical boy known as the writer, the brainchild of Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–90), a Swiss watchmaker who became renowned for this and similar works.

The writer comprises about 6000 parts and contains 40 replaceable interior cams that allow it to write – using a goose-feather quill – any text of up to 40 characters. In other words, it’s programmable. The machine has an uncanny quality charged by the movement of its eyes as they follow the composition of letters and the refilling of the quill with fresh ink (which it briefly shakes, to prevent blotting).*


The automaton is housed in the Neuchâtel Museum of Art and History in Switzerland, together with its partner pieces the draftsman and the musician.

Thanks to Adrian at The Outer Hoard for the tip-off. The documentary can be seen in full here, while this is a good place to start for more detail on the history of automata.

Update: Public Domain Review has a fine illustrated essay by Jessica Riskin on the history of automata.

10 Responses to The writer automaton by Pierre Jaquet-Droz

  1. Oh, that’s so beautiful and clever.

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    I am awestruck by this Stan. Stunning!

  3. Sean J. says:

    Trying to top above comments, would be ridiculous.

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I find a smidgen of irony in our present-day, very understandable fascination with, and wonder at the workings of this charming, magical “writer automaton”, created and showcased by Monsieur Jaquet-Droz, while at the same time, sadly, witnessing the disappearance in the use of written cursive script; as our current younger generation, (and generations yet to come), embrace two-thumbed texting on smart phones, and rapid-fire typing on iPads, and other portable key-board-dependent devices.

    But then again, the player piano (another automatonic device, of sorts) never replaced the actual hands-on piano. Tickling the ivories is clearly here to stay.

    For me, antique writing automatons, despite their uniqueness and intrinsic charm, will survive as sad reminders of a once standard form of potentially expressive hand-writing—cursive—which, for better, or worse, is seemingly fast-forwarding toward extinction.

    I’m sure many readers on this site are familiar w/ the critically well received, but not widely viewed film from a few years back, “Hugo”, where a writing automaton played a key role in the narrative stream of a very intriguing Paris-based period piece?

    • mrsdaffodil says:

      I find these automatons fascinating and haunting. For me, the automaton was the very best part of “Hugo”. I wished I could have taken that automaton home with me.

      • Stan says:

        I had a similar reaction, mrsdaffodil. It was a beautiful piece of work, and it’s what I remember most from the film. Haunting, as you say.

  5. Stan says:

    Ashley: A hearty yes on both counts.

    WWW: Its ingenuity is quite breathtaking.

    Sean: I’m very glad you enjoyed it.

    Alex: There is irony there, but I think our fascination with the machine is largely independent of the relative popularity of handwriting. I would have thought Hugo was quite widely seen, having won a bunch of Oscars and other awards, though it definitely didn’t see the box office returns its creators (and the critics) felt it deserved. Jaquet-Droz’s automaton served as an inspiration for the one in Scorsese’s film.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @Stan: Perhaps recognizing that the writer automaton represents a kind of curious, admittedly marvelous relic of yore, while essentially demonstrating a mode of human communication that today is fast becoming a ‘relic’ in itself, i.e., cursive hand-written script, is more the point I was earlier trying to make.

      But your point re/ there being little (or no) correlation between the fascination with this machine, and the sorry state of cursive handwriting today, is well taken.

      Re/ the success of the film “Hugo”, admittedly its box-office draw was respectable, but hardly spectacular, and indeed, most respected critics gave it high marks, and a number of high-profile cinematic organizations, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—The Oscar givers— did award it a number of deserved trophies for excellence.

      • Stan says:

        And a fair point it is, Alex. I’ve seen reaction to this post from several people saying the machine’s writing is better than their own, so seldom do they write nowadays.

  6. […]                                                                          LINK […]

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