AUTOMATON THROUGH THE AGES
The Antikythera Mechanism is the world’s oldest surviving machine, which the Greeks made nearly 2,000 years ago. It was found off a shipwreck in 1901, and through a series of radiographic scans, was revealed to be a complex gear-based mechanism built to calculate the movement of the Sun, Moon and planets. The fact that the Greeks could design and construct an analog calculator like the Mechanism in 150–100 BC, makes you think twice about how advanced ancient civilizations could have been. It might even lend credit to what the ancient Greek poet Pindar (c. 522 – c. 443 BC) wrote about the island of Rhodes, which sounds suspiciously like automata: “The animated figures stand / Adorning every public street / And seem to breathe in stone, or move their marble / feet.” The years from 1848 to 1914 were called ‘The Golden Age of Automata.’ Although it was made slightly earlier, circa 1800, one of the most famous automata from this period is Maillardet’s Automaton, built by a Swiss mechanician, Henri Maillardet.
The story of Maillardet’s Automaton’s restoration is as astonishing as the automaton itself. In 1928, the estate of John Penn Brock donated pieces of a complex brass machine to The Franklin Institute science museum in Philadelphia. The machine, which was made in the image of a boy, had been damaged in a fire.
An Institute machinist managed to repair the machine, and once it was turned on, the Automaton came to life, producing intricate sketches from its drawing hand. After drawing four pictures and three poems, it signed, in the border of the final poem, “Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet,” or, “Written by the Automaton of Maillardet.”