Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Automaton's Secret

by Gregg Chadwick

Henri Maillardet's Automaton at The Franklin Institute 

In November 1928, the fire scarred remains of a mechanical boy were dropped off at The Franklin Institute  in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Left in pieces, it took months of painstaking work to reassemble the automaton. Little was known about the history of this extraordinary object. Like the automaton in Brian Selznick's magical, graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Martin Scorsese's wonderful film adaptation of the book now simply entitled Hugo, the machine itself provided the clue to its origins.
When the complicated cogs and mechanisms were repaired and the machine was rewound for the first time in decades, the automaton's hand began to draw.  Remarkably the machine's mechanical memory, held four drawings and three poems  (illustrated below). One of the poems finished with a signature in French, "Ecrit par l'Automate de Maillardet." The mechanical boy signed the name of his creator - Maillardet. 

Further research led to the Swiss watch-maker and automaton creator Henri Maillardet. Working primarily in London, Maillardet seems to have created The Franklin Institute's Automaton before 1800 while working in the mechanical shop of Pierre Jaquet-Droz. The Franklin Institute believes that Maillardet created only one other automaton that could write. This missing masterpiece wrote in Chinese and was created for the Emperor of China and given as a gift by King George III of England.

Mysteries still remain. How did the automaton get to the United States? Why did it end up in Philadelphia? A clue might be found in the fire damaged state of the automaton upon its delivery at the Franklin Institute.
It is known that the circus impresario and showman P.T. Barnum collected curios, including automata, and housed them in his museums in New York that were destroyed by fire. Perhaps the Franklin Institute's mechanical boy was saved from P.T. Barnum's smoldering collection  - waiting for someone to turn his key once more.

Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret was inspired by the Franklin Institute's Automaton. In this video shot at the museum, Selznick discusses Maillardet's Automaton and its influence on his book.

 Four Drawings and Three Poem's Written by Maillardet's Restored Automaton at the Franklin Institute

Charles Penniman adjusts Maillardet's Automaton at the Franklin Institute.

A Still From Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" Illustrating His Adaptation of Maillardet's Automaton

Henri Maillardet's Automaton at The Franklin Institute and More From CBS Sunday Morning

Henri Maillardet's Automaton at The Franklin Institute

Much More at:
Maillardet's Automaton at the Franklin Institute
Brian Selznick and The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Martin Scorsese's Hugo


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