Je joue donc je suis: an audience with the Jaquet-Droz automata

The highlight of my recent trip to Switzerland was the morning I spent at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Neuchâtel with Caroline Junier, the curator, Thierry Ronstutz, a local watchmaker, and two 18th century robots.  The Jaquet-Droz Automata were built by theologian, mathematician and watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis and their colleague Jean-Frédéric Leschot in the early 1770s, and first exhibited to the public in nearby La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1774.  They toured Europe for a few years, then were sold to a Spanish collector in 1778.  They reappeared in the early 19th century, periodically touring Europe until they finally came back to Switzerland in 1906, and were acquired by the museum in 1909.  To celebrate their 100th year at the museum, a three year project is now underway to restore them, to investigate their extensive archives (not systematically reviewed since the 1940s) and to analyse their metal parts to determine which are original.  A historian of science, an art historian, and a mechanical engineer (who will make an inventory of each part of the mechanisms) have already started work.  At the end of the three years the museum will host a major new exhibition highlighting the restoration and the findings.

The automata consist of two nearly identical small boys that sit on four legged stools and bend over tables, and a slightly larger and older-looking girl who sits at her organ.  Their bodies were carved of local apple and maple wood, with leather protecting the moving parts; their interiors are as complex as watches, filled with delicate brass gears and cams.  The three have not been separated since they were built in 1774; I believe this has at least something to do with the fact that they look like a family.  Although they always travelled together, some sources say that at times Jaquet-Droz only operated one at a time when they were exhibited.  They have suffered some wear and tear, as well as some alteration, over the years; the girl and boy I saw, for example, both had red painted nails, though paint analysis indicates that they were originally a more natural-looking pink. This original colour will be restored during the current restoration project.  Tests have shown several paint layers under the current one; apparently whenever they got scratched or nicked they would just be entirely repainted.

Caroline’s personal favourite, and the one she thinks gives the most convincing illusion of life, is the drawing boy, who during my visit was at an exhibition in Lugano; I have to say, though, that I find it hard to believe he can be more realistic than the musician.  Unlike the two boys, her body and head move independently of her task, and she can sit and breathe and fidget (her head and neck making almost imperceptible movements) independently for an hour.  Also unlike the boys she is operated by four separate pieces of machinery—one to pump the organ, one to operate her hands and fingers, one to operate her head and body, and one to power the bow she performs at the end of each song.

Caroline has recently provided her with a new wig and a new dress made from a bolt of silk woven in an authentic pattern by a Jacquard loom at the museum during the seven months of an exhibition held there in 1986.  Caroline specifically chose a bodice and skirt rather than a gown and underskirt, a type of dress generally worn in domestic rather than public settings; the musician is clearly designed to represent a girl playing for her family rather than a performer in a concert hall.  I asked Caroline why she’s chosen not to give the musician jewellery, and she replied that a woman living in this strictly Protestant region at that time would not have worn jewellery.  The musician does have holes in her ears for earrings, but Caroline pointed out that they have no idea whether the holes were original; during the restoration it may be possible to determine this, perhaps by microanalysis of the grooves to determine how they were made.  There’s no way to know for sure now what the automata originally wore, but it’s fascinating to see in images made at various times how their clothes and hair changed over more than two centuries.  19th century drawings and photographs, for example, show the musician in a crinoline dress, with long Romantic ringlets, and the boys in robes rather than suits.

She doesn’t have eyelids, and only her head moves, but the way she looks at the keyboard as she plays is eerily realistic; when she finishes her tune she leans forward slightly and bows her head.  She can play five tunes, all of which are recorded on one cylinder under her seat, so she can go from one to the next easily.  The cylinder contains 500 lines of ‘instructions’—five tunes for ten fingers each.  The movements of the arms and fingers are controlled from the cylinder, but none of her other movements is, except for the bow, which is triggered by a peg on the cylinder at the end of each song.  It is possible to depress a lever which lifts her body and hands slightly off the keyboard, to demonstrate that her fingers are actually playing the keyboard and she isn’t just an elaborate music box.

As she has little range of movement in her forearms, and her arms are fixed at the elbow, she plays on a rather modern-looking curved ergonomic keyboard.  Her instrument, in a beautiful marquetry box, has been extensively restored.   When the museum got it it contained one register of 24 wooden pipes, but research demonstrated that only the large horizontal wooden pipes were original and there was room in the box for two registers of metal pipes, which have since been installed.  The registers are now controlled via a brass knob on the right side of the box, and she can play in the higher, the lower, or both.

Caroline told me the musician was actually made by Henri-Louis, who had only been 20 years old at the time. He was a musician, and had written her music himself.  Caroline also told me baroque keyboard performers have come to watch her play, in order to study the fingerwork of the time—they’ve discovered, for example, that the thumb was more often used then than it is now.

The writing boy apparently draws the most professional interest, as an early example of ‘programming’—but this is misleading, as he is only ‘programmed’ in the same way type is set for a printing press.  A wheel in his back accommodates 40 arm movements—letters, spaces, the movement to get more ink from the inkwell.  Each is controlled by a small brass tile with a tooth that ranges in height from nothing to about half an inch.  Each tooth height selects three cams, one for the boy’s arm’s horizontal movement, one for its vertical movement, and one for its up and down movement (which allows him to dip his pen or exert more pressure on the paper).  Altogether 120 cams are lined up vertically from the boy’s shoulders to his hips.

Since it can take up to eight hours to reset the wheel, the writing boy’s text (‘Les automates/Jaquet Droz/à neuchatel’) is rarely changed; I believe the last time was for François Mitterrand’s visit to the city. Caroline pointed out that the magic of video technology (like the clip linked at the bottom of this piece) can effortlessly allow the writing boy to produce any number of phrases.

He can write up to four lines on his small piece of paper (the size of an index card).  Unlike the musician, his body doesn’t move at all, but his eyes follow his writing.  He needs a little help to get started and sometimes in moving the paper, and he needs his pen blotted before he writes to avoid getting ink all over everything.  Unlike the drawing boy, who moves his hand over the entire fixed paper, the writing boy only writes in one spot, and moves the paper along with his other hand, which holds a brass knob on the side of a frame in which the paper is set.  Interestingly, another reason the musician is the most realistic automaton for me is that the music covers any mechanical sounds she might be making; the writing boy completes each letter with an audible click as the readers move to the next set of cams.  I was startled to be handed his crank and instructed to turn it; needless to say I did it very gingerly but the boy still seems pretty robust after all these centuries.

Both the drawing and writing boys have a conical fusee in their upper right sides, which keeps a steady pressure on the mechanism as it unwinds.  The musician doesn’t have a fusee; the force in her mechanism is kept constant by two large tightly-wound springs under the organ (these exploded in 1987, fortunately with no one around, which allowed researchers to have a good look at the mechanism).  What I found particularly interesting about this is that these clockmakers’ techniques for regulating the mechanism solved a problem that Charles Babbage had been unable to solve, or uninterested in solving; the Babbage engine cannot keep a steady force on the mechanism as it’s cranked, which causes some problems in calculation.

The drawing boy is the simplest of the three mechanisms.  He uses a pencil, and blows graphite off his paper; Caroline points out that the blowing is a distraction while the pencil is reset to a different position.  He can 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’—which are on three cylinders (the dog and the king are on the same cylinder). The dog takes 174 movements; the Cupid and butterfly is the most complex and has only been set into the machine once during Caroline’s time at the museum.  In addition to the writing boy’s paper, Caroline and Thierry gave me three of the drawing boy’s drawings.

Caroline was very interesting on the subject of the ‘show’—these machines were designed for a particular purpose, to amaze and dazzle their audiences; they really have no other function.  She pointed out, for example, that part of the ‘show’ is the fact that the boys are babies—that you’d never see real children that young able to write and draw.  She also pointed out that in the case of the boys (he could cheat a bit with the girl) Jaquet-Droz was careful to house the entire mechanism within their small bodies.  The chairs and tables they sit at are spindly and open, indicating to audiences that there was no outside mechanism controlling their movements.

Caroline is very conscious of the fact that the operation of the mechanisms should be presented as a show, and for audiences operates them as drawing boy, writing boy and musician, the little bow of the latter being an appropriate ending to the presentation. She told me she’s been criticised for operating the machines so frequently, a debate familiar to anyone who owns an old motorcycle.  She points out that it’s obvious in the case of old musical instruments that keeping them in tune and in use prolongs their lives more than leaving them lifeless in glass cases.  She pointed out that her job would be a lot easier if she chose not to run them—there’d be no maintenance costs…but no one in the museum either.  They’re run three times one afternoon a month, and the small theatre in which they’re kept is always full.  She also arranges private sessions for small groups, but is very particular that these groups are self-organised and isolated; she says people won’t ask questions in front of strangers.  I found this fascinating; it would never have occurred to me to arrange and ensure private viewings.

I’m not sure I asked my question correctly, or asked for a demonstration, so I’m still not clear about whether the non-playing moves of the musician, and to a lesser extent the boys, are in any way coordinated with their performing moves.  What I wanted to know was whether every time one sees them in operation one gets an entirely different experience, the way one would with a live performer, or whether it’s exactly the same, and whether this affects people’s reactions if they see the robots in operation more than once.  Caroline and I discussed this; her opinion is that as audience members aren’t absorbing every detail the first time they see them perform they aren’t necessarily experiencing a ‘repeat’ of the first performance.  She did find the point interesting enough that she said she’d observe audiences to see if she could get a sense of this.  I find this question interesting in general–how is it that we’ve adapted our taste for entertainment such that are wiling to enjoy, for example, multiple identical repetitions of a piece of recorded music or a movie?

These machines are part of a long historical tradition of automation which still continues. Jacques de Vaucanson, inventor of the ‘digesting duck’, told Jaquet-Droz, ‘you start where I finished’; a few years ago modern-day creator Francois Junod has made a copy of, or rather homage to, the writing boy, a robot that blinks, breathes, bends over his drawing and kicks his feet as he works.  He has apparently also made a similar version of the musician, with a tambourine as well as a keyboard, but I haven’t seen her.  People still find these machines compelling; Caroline points out that people today see exactly what people saw in 1774 and we are still amazed and delighted.

Questions I didn’t think to ask at the time:

What sort of joint does the musician have in her neck that allows such free and natural movement of her head? She doesn’t appear to have a joint between her head and neck, but her neck is quite short, and concealed by a high collar.

How much routine maintenance do they require, and does this vary according to how often they are operated?  (This relationship could very well be inverse.)

Questions the researchers may someday be able to answer:

What wigs and clothes did the machines originally wear?  Did they have several different outfits, as the evidence seems to indicate?  If so, was there a particular protocol for changing their outfits?

These delicate machines routinely travelled all over Europe on 18th century roads—how were they prepared for transport, and how were they carried?  What sort of routine did Jaquet-Droz establish for their transport?

The organ has two registers, and which register is controlled by a lever on the right side of the organ; this has been established by inspection of the box.  But how were the registers controlled originally?  Were they somehow automated?

Did Jaquet-Droz ever reveal the mechanism to audiences?  We do now, because people find it fascinating how the automata work, but we are used to the idea of machines controlling movement; would that have destroyed the illusion of 18th century audiences, and was maintaining the illusion Jaquet-Droz’s primary goal?  It seems there are two reasons to show the mechanism, or rather two reactions that can be elicited—to demonstrate the impossible complexity of the automata (i.e. show the machinery but not demonstrate or explain how it works), or to demonstrate the mechanism that creates the effects.  Would either or both of these reactions be something Jaquet-Droz would like to elicit?  Might he have treated different audiences to different types of demonstration?

More links:

The drawing boy’s images
Francois Junod’s drawing boy

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7 Responses to “Je joue donc je suis: an audience with the Jaquet-Droz automata”

  1. When can we see a video of them in motion?

  2. Apologies! You can now find said video at the very bottom of the article.

  3. These must be somewhat of the genesis of the idea of Van Rijn in the Girl Genius webcomic.

  4. […] einen Beitrag im Steampunk Magazine bin ich auf ein tolles Video über die Androiden des schweizer Uhrmachers Pierre Jaquet-Droz […]

  5. What a lovely article — thank you so much for sharing your experience and your thoughts on these mechanical marvels.

  6. Wow, thanks for this post I loved going through those pictures, what cute mechanical wonders they are 🙂

  7. I have always wondered how the cams for the writer and the draughtsman were created. The draftsman has these perfect moves, this can not be done by trial and error methods.
    Could the shape of these cams be worked out in a mathematical way? Or did they build a reverse mechanism where one would grab the stylus, do a part of the drawing and a mechanism would record the movement on a rotating, cam like disc, probably enlarged to get a better resolution??
    I guess this was one of the secrets that went to the grave with the constructors…

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