Strange Science: Maillardet’s Automaton

By Daderot (I took this photograph.) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the early nineteenth century, a Swiss mechanician built an automaton that could write poetry and draw pictures. Granted, the poetry and pictures it could draw were pre-programmed, but the memory involved in the machine is the equivalent of slight more than one-third of a megabyte–not bad for a 200-plus year old machine!

Henri Maillardet was the inventor, and the machine is known as Maillardet’s Automaton, Maillardet’s Draughtsman-Writer, or┬áMaelzel’s Juvenile Artist. Two of the three poems it could produce were in French, while the third was in English, and the images it drew included two versions of Cupid, a ship, and a Chinese temple.

In 1928, Maillardet’s Automaton was delivered to the Franklin Institute. The machine was in pieces and had been damaged in a fire, but they managed to restore it to its original functionality. It required additional work in 2007. But the Franklin Institute still holds this piece, and even runs it a few times a year. You can watch it at work in this video.

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