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240-year-old Programmable Humanoid Robot

September 21, 2013

Humanoid robotics news has been a little thin lately, so we’re going to reach back for a somewhat older news item… 240 years old, in fact.

This excerpt from the BBC documentary Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams shows The Writer, an 18th-century automaton built by Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz.

The Writer is the most complex of three famous clockwork automata built by Jacquet-Droz, along with the help of his son (Henri Louis Jacquet-Droz) and Jean-Frédéric Leschot.  It a small mechanical boy, who writes neatly with a quill pen.  Its head and eyes track its work as it periodically dips its pen into the inkwell, shakes off the excess, and continues with its writing.

Its siblings, the Draughtsman and the Musician, are also quite impressive; and there were other impressive automata in the day as well.  But The Writer is significantly more advanced than these others, and most worthy of being called a humanoid robot, for two reasons.

First, all the mechanisms that make The Writer operate fit within its body.  Many other automata of the day had extensive cams, linkages, energy storage, and other mechanisms outside the body (typically within a pedestal to which the automata would be permanently mounted).  Not so with The Writer; all mechanisms were minaturized and carefully arranged until they fit entirely within the human form.

Second, and most amazing of all: The Writer is programmable.  There is a control wheel containing 40 interchangeable units, each one defining one letter or symbol to be written by the boy.  By changing these, the robot can be easily programmed to write any message 40 characters or less.

Our tools and techniques today are different — instead of springs and cams, we use batteries and electronic computers.  But the spirit and objectives are very much the same.  Jacquet-Droz was a maker and a roboticist of the finest sort, even if those terms didn’t exist at the time, and we can all learn from his craftsmanship.

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