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AUTOMATON REFLECTS FASCINATION WITH MACHINES

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At the pull of a lever his head went down and he began to scroll. He finished a slightly naughty little poem in French, making sure to dot the "i's" and cross the "t's," and looked up with an impish grin.

He is an automaton, a sophisticated, nearly 200-year-old toy, on display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. He is a curiosity in art and mechanics.Wearing a red satin hat and jacket with a white ruffled collar, he kneels at a brass writing table, poised to entertain his guests. His "brain" is in brass cams and clockwork motors in a large chest underneath the table.

The automaton writes poems in elegant, fluid script and surrounds them with ornate borders. Translated from the French into English, one of the four-line poems goes like this:

A child by ladies adored,

I am throughout all lands,

in great good favor with women,

and also with husbands.

The automaton knows three poems, two in French and one in English.

The automaton was built in London around 1800 by Henri Maillardet, a member of a Swiss family of clockmakers. The device reflects the fascination with machines during the Enlightenment, when clocks, music boxes and mechanical toys were the rage.