Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Neuchâtel, Switzerland

The mechanism of the writing boy automaton

The mechanism of the writing boy automaton

Close by the Horological Museum in La Chaux-de-Fonds is the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Neuchâtel. This museum holds an outstanding collection of 18th and 19th century machines, including three automata constructed by theologian, mathematician and watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis and their colleague Jean-Frédéric Leschot in the early 1770s. These machines were exhibited all over Europe when they were first built and in the 19th century. In 2009, to celebrate their 100th year at the museum, the Musée d’art et d’histoire undertook a three year restoration project including analysis of the machines (to determine which parts were original and which had been repaired or replaced) and a systematic investigation of archive material for the first time in at least 60 years. Last year the museum hosted a symposium and exhibition, ‘Automates & Merveilles’, highlighting the restoration and research findings.

Piano-playing female automaton

Piano-playing female automaton

The Jaquet-Droz automata are two small boys sitting on four legged stools, one writing and one drawing, and a girl who plays a pipe organ. During my visit in 2009 I found the girl the most compelling and lifelike; unlike the boys, her body and head move independently of her task, and she can sit and breathe and fidget (her chest slightly rising and falling, and her head and neck making almost imperceptible movements) for an hour. Though she has no eyelids, and only her head, forearms and hands move as she plays, I found the way she looks at the keyboard eerily realistic.

Details of the piano-playing female automaton

Details of the piano-playing female automaton

The drawing boy, the simplest of the three mechanisms, uses a pencil to draw four images – King Louis, portraits of a king and queen, Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly, and a little dog with the words ‘mon toutou’. The writing boy draws the most interest from historians of science and technology, as he is often considered an early example of ‘programming’—but this is misleading, as he is no more ‘programmable’ than a printing press, which he effectively is at one remove. A wheel in his back moves cams that activate 40 different arm movements—tracing letters, making spaces on the paper, and getting more ink from the inkwell. He can write up to four preset lines on a piece of paper the size of an index card, though the mechanism is so delicate the lines have not been reprogrammed since François Mitterrand’s visit to the city.

The automata are operated three times on the first Sunday of every month, and the small theatre in which they perform is always full—21st century audiences watch with as much delight and amazement as people of two centuries ago. Private viewing sessions for small groups can also be arranged.

Address: Musée d’art et d’histoire Esplanade Leopold-Robert 1 2000 Neuchâtel
Website: http://www.mahn.ch/