AU­TOM­A­TON THROUGH THE AGES

HWM (Singapore) - - News -

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.”

HWM

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