The Maillardet automaton, in the collections of The Franklin Institute (FI cat#1663), represents the pinnacle of perfection of the “Writer-Draftsman” class of automata, developed from the middle 1700s through the early 1800s.
An automaton is a machine, typically resembling a living being such as a human or animal. Automata (the plural of automaton) have self-contained internal clockwork mechanisms, that often include power sources such as mainsprings, to provide the action.
When set in motion, they perform in life-like ways. In addition to the Writer-Draftsman, there were many other types of automata. Some played keyboard instruments, others acrobatically balanced upside down on chairs, scurried in circles or traversed across surfaces in whimsical ways, among other wonders.
The Maillardet automaton was debuted around 1795 in London as “The Juvenile Artist”, and quickly became a headliner in automata exhibitions, worldwide.
was the kind of kid who loved to take my toys apart to see how they worked. Once I’d learned the purpose of each part, I would carefully put my toys back together just as the manufacturer intended. Then I would get curious and take them apart again, and figure out other ways to arrange the parts to see if I could make them do different things.
As I grew up I developed a fascination with antique machines. I had always loved antique cars and remember sitting in a darkened movie theater when I was six years old, excited and captivated by the opening scene of the automobile race in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. At age 12, I began to acquire antique machines that nobody wanted and taught myself how to work on them. There was always something to notice about the beauty and appropriateness of the engineering and aesthetics, which made modern machines unappealing. Over the next 30 years or so, I repaired and restored everything from old clocks and wind-up phonographs to typewriters, cash registers, music boxes, vintage radios and, yes, antique cars. Some of these were for myself, but many were for other enthusiasts and collectors. The Library of Congress approached me when they wanted a particular 1890s cylinder phonograph to transcribe early recordings, and the Edison museum in Fort Myers, Florida referred consulting and repair work to me.
When I became a “Paper Engineer” in the mid 1990s, I applied much of what I had learned about machines to the art of creating pop-up books, and soon became known as someone who could create complex and innovative paper mechanics.
On November 9, 2005 I received an email from Brian Selznick, a friend of my pop-up collaborator Paul O. Zelinsky. At that time Brian was actively creating what would soon become the award-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Brian wrote:
Paul also mentioned to Brian that I might be helpful in explaining how the automaton’s mechanism works, which could be useful to the research that Brian was doing for his book. And so we began a dialogue.
Brian had been granted a private showing of the automaton, although it had been broken for some years. John Alviti, the Franklin Institute’s Senior Curator of Collections, and Charles Penniman, the automaton’s caretaker and exhibitor, demonstrated the distressed machine to the limited extent that it could be run. They allowed Brian to take photos and video clips, which he then emailed to me so that I might develop an understanding of its mechanical details.
I could easily analyze the automaton’s general principles of operation, and I distilled my observations into a brief description for Brian. He sent me a copy of his manuscript and some of his drawings for the book, and we continued our correspondence mostly by telephone.
I was delighted to read the story, which was already essentially complete, and felt an immediate affinity for Hugo. I suggested which tools Hugo would use for certain tasks (“For the metal tabs on the mouse, Hugo would more likely use a small screwdriver to lift them, and then a needle-nose pliers…”). My own background, repairing similar toys when I was a boy, made all of this second-nature to me.
As I read Brian’s manuscript, in my mind’s eye I would see Hugo doing certain things that weren’t described in the text; just a few small details that I imagined he would do. For example, after reading of Hugo winding a clock in the train station walls, I pictured him tilting his head to one side, attentively listening to make sure the clock was running evenly before making his way to the next one. As I read what Hugo was doing, I was always thinking, “What would a clockmaker, or a mechanician’s perception be if they read the book?”
In another scene, Hugo enters his little room in the train station walls and turns on the light. Although these words were on the paper, I pictured the room remaining dark. Though it wasn’t in the text, I imagined Hugo so preoccupied that he’d once again forget that the bulb was long-since burned out.
Brian is a meticulous researcher. My communications with him were always a pleasure, and it was gratifying to see some of my contributions in the final work. Brian in turn, included this thoughtful acknowledgment at the end of his book:
When The Invention of Hugo Cabret came out early in 2007, the Franklin Institute was independently planning a display that would feature Maillardet’s automaton as a prominent part of an exhibition to open in 2008, called The Amazing Machine. And yet the automaton remained quiet and still, waiting for its time to be tended to. During the final months of work on his book and in the eventful weeks beyond, Brian renewed communication with his contacts at the museum, and made sure that my prior accomplishments were made known to them. I followed up at this time as well, submitting lists and photographs of my machine restorations and intricate creations.
Now the book was out, and the spotlight was on Maillardet’s automaton in a way it hadn’t been in years. It was time for The Franklin Institute to act. On February 25, 2007 I received the following email from the Senior Curator, John Alviti:
from my pop-up résumé (where these connections began), to workshop photos and before-and-after views of antique cars I had restored. As John noted, the museum was also interested in restoring their 1929 RCA theremin, the first manufactured electronic musical instrument. I already had experience with this type of instrument, and had made one in my workshop. Theirs hadn’t worked since some time prior to 1951.
I arrived at The Franklin Institute on my 45th birthday, March 31st, 2007, and was introduced to John Alviti and Charles Penniman, and to Maillardet’s automaton. The details of the automaton restoration are another story and best understood by reading my comprehensive restoration report.
The restoration was aided by a set of clear, close-up photos that Charles made for me in the days prior to my trip. I remember studying them like flash cards during my flight to Philadelphia. Charles had also observed an impingement in the automaton’s shoulder, which he knew was causing other issues, and pointed this out to me. This was one problem of many, in several different areas that needed attention. My original report, prepared for The Franklin’s files, had two dozen detailed repair entries, in addition to various other observations and summaries.
The restoration detail I’m most proud of is that I was able to restore the graceful, life-like movement of the automaton’s head and eyes, as though the moving figure is thoughtfully engaged in its own act of creation. Although the automaton had seen prior and major restoration efforts between 1871 and 1981, this elegant movement that imparts so much character was lost for more than a century and hadn’t been seen by any living person.
On November 4th, 2007, Brian Selznick returned to The Franklin for a historic event. Brian presented an engaging slide show about the making of his now-famous The Invention of Hugo Cabret, followed by a book-signing and the public unveiling of the newly restored automaton. Everyone was there – Paul O. Zelinsky, John, Charles, Brian, me, and of course the Maillardet automaton, which performed flawlessly on this occasion in front of a large audience, drawing a tall-masted British warship with billowing sails and flying banners, complex rigging, cannons in the ports and waves on the ocean.
The RCA theremin at the Franklin is once again in good working order, and this type of instrument is the subject of a website that I co-created with my theremin colleague Mike Buffington, RCATheremin.com. Maillardet’s automaton is enjoying a tremendous rebirth of attention by visitors from around the world, who want to see the automaton that inspired Brian Selznick’s book, and the movie HUGO.
In my imagination, the automaton is reveling in the glory and fanfare of its first days of public exhibition, when its metal parts were bright and new, in the dawn of that faraway day in the distant past.