Fantastic World of Automaton Print E-mail

Delaware County Times
March 2, 2012

He first laid eyes on the mechanical boy in 1935, at age six.  

Over the past four decades Charles Penniman has researched, gently cared for and operated one of the world’s greatest mechanical treasures, the marvelous automaton (pronounced aw-TOM-ah-tah) that resides at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

Created around 1800 by Henri Maillardet, the “Draughtsman-Writer” automaton depicts a young boy at a desk who is capable of rendering four intricate and graceful drawings and three poems (two in French, one in English) on blank sheets of paper.  Automaton Cover

“It’s amazing that this delicate device can do it,” said Penniman, 83, a retired staff educator at the museum. “But what is really amazing is that it still does it after 200 years.”  

Long before there were electricity and electric motors, skilled artisans built these complex mechanical wonders. They worked using complicated cogs and clockwork mechanisms and resembled humans or animals that imitated life. During the 19th century wealthy people would show them off at parties.

This Philadelphia story unfolds in November 1928.   A truck pulled up to the Franklin  Institute’s original location on Seventh Street and  dropped off the shattered and fire-scarred remains of a mechanical brass boy dressed in a tattered red soldier’s jacket.  After years of painstaking work to reassemble the automaton it was unveiled at the opening of the Franklin Institute at its new location on the Parkway in 1934.

When the complex machine was rewound for the first time in decades the boy, pen in hand, began to draw and write.   In the process, it solved an age-old mystery.

Automaton3Delivered in a beautiful flowing script one picture reveals a Chinese temple and garden, another is a majestic British ship with full sails, rough waters, and tiny crewmen. The mechanical boy looks up and stares out at while writing a poem at various points as if contemplating his next thought.  One of the poems finishes with a signature in French, "Ecrit par l'Automate de Maillardet." The boy signed the name of his creator - Maillardet.  It was now possible to search out the machine’s proper origin.

The automaton is a rare old-fashioned curiosity finding a modern day rebirth.  Thanks to Martin Scorsese the automaton is back in vogue. The mechanical device plays an intriguing supporting role in the director’s wonderful film “Hugo”,  which recounts the career of French film pioneer Georges Melies,and captured five Academy Awards in 2012 of the 11 for which it was nominated, tying with Artist for the year's biggest haul.  Hugo is the film adaption of the magical graphic novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick from 2007. 

Hugo, which recounts the career of French film pioneer Georges Melies, captured five Academy Awards in 2012 of the 11 for which it was nominated, tying with Artist for the year's biggest haul.

Set in 1930s Paris Hugo is bent on discovering the mystery surrounding a wondrous automaton that his father was tinkering with at a museum before he died. Hugo tries to stay connected to him by searching for the spare parts necessary to animate the automaton that sits at a desk with a pen in hand, prepared to write. Part of Hugo’s mystery story is what is written, and how Hugo discovers the key to the automaton’s clockwork.  The movie utilizes 15 different automatons to deliver compelling facial expressions.  Unlike the Franklin Institute’s device, a number are programmed by a computer.

In researching his book Selznick learned that Georges Méliès-- the early French filmmaker central to the story-- had a collection of automatons that were eventually discarded.  While scouring the Internet for background Selznick discovered the story of the Franklin Institute’s delightful mechanical boy.

When Selznick visited the museum in 2007, the Maillardet automaton was in the storage basement and not accessible to the public.  The head had been taken off, and it was unable to actually write or draw.  Still, Penniman was able to wind it up and show Selznick how the mechanisms moved, and how all the gears and cams worked.

Selznick suggested contacting Andy Baron, a restorer of vintage mechanisms and designer of pop-up books in Santa Fe, N.M. Baron had helped Selznick with mechanical details in his book of how the automaton writes and draws.  Baron, who had never seen an automaton in person, traveled to the Franklin Institute and worked on its automaton for several weeks.  

“I told Andy I thought there was a possible shoulder impingement and when he first operated the machine it jammed up, so he went about fixing its shoulder,” Penniman recalled.  “He took apart some elements of the mechanism, had a vital replacement part produced by one of our machinists, and oiled and adjusted the rest.”  

A stylograph pen was replaced by a totally unhistorical, but much more convenient, ballpoint pen. When Baron finished tinkering, the two-spring driven motors were wound and a lever was gently lifted.  The automaton came to life.

Today, it is no longer costumed, and sits in a glass display case as the centerpiece of the museum’s permanent “Amazing Machine” exhibition.  Without clothes it shows more of the inner workings of the Maillardet machine that weighs about 250 pounds. The original writing instrument having been lost, a fine ballpoint pen is now used to bring out the detail of the automaton's works. Due to its delicate nature, the automaton is not demonstrated on a regular basis.

The mechanical figure is kneeling at a writing desk mounted atop an ornate stand containing the program and driving mechanism.

“It has the largest mechanical memory of any such machine ever created and excellent three axis motion of the arm,” said Derrick Pitts, a senior scientist, who has worked at the museum for 34 years.

“Information for the doll’s movements is communicated up through the body of the figure by an incredibly intricate combination of levers, rods, pulleys and cams.”  

Many of the automatons were adult luxury items meant to be decorative art in the homes owned by wealthy 19th century merchants.  

“They struck a sense of awe in the people of that era as they were able to mimic life such as swinging on a trapeze or playing chess,” Pitts noted. “In an age before electricity it was truly a remarkable machine.”  

Mysteries still remain. How did the boy end up in Philadelphia?   

Henri Maillardet was a Swiss mechanist, who worked in 18th century in London producing clocks and other mechanisms and exhibited his automaton at trade fairs throughout Europe.   It has been speculated that P.T. Barnum brought the boy to a museum he owned at Seventh and Chestnut Streets that records indicate suffered a fire.  At some point it turned up in the possession of a wealthy Philadelphian, John Penn Brock.  The automaton was donated to the Franklin Institute by his descendants who confirmed it had been ruined in a fire and hadn't been operating for years.

Although Maillardet had originally dressed the automaton as a little boy in court dress, by the time Brock purchased the figure and brought it to Philadelphia he was in the tattered uniform of a French soldier when it was delivered to the Institute in 1928.  Since the boy's legs were either missing or irreparable, the simplest solution seems to have been to dress him as an 18th-century woman in a long dress, covering the large box that contained the working mechanisms.  

Penniman believes that Maillardet created only one other automaton that could write. This missing masterpiece that wrote in Chinese was created for the Emperor of China and given as a gift by King George III of England.  

A couple of months ago Penimann viewed the film “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret.”  

“It was an interesting film that worked quite well with Brian’s book,” he related. “I like that they gave credit to the French filmmaker Georges Méliès who was a real pioneer in the motion picture business who at one time had big collection of these mechanical, magical machines.”

Does Penniman feel he has a personal relationship with the mechanical boy?

“Well no, but I admire him tremendously and seriously respect him and I look forward to exploring some of the gaps in its history in the coming years,” replies Penniman.

“It is such a wonderful learning device for kids.  When I see a youngster with the Hugo book tucked under his arm headed over to see the real automaton I must say that gladdens my heart.” 


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