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“The Writer” by Pierre Jaquet-Droz

In this BBC Four video Professor Simon Schaffer tells the story of an amazing machine built around 250 years ago – a small clockwork boy who can write.

In 1774, Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790), his son Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz (1752-1791) and their fellow clockmaker Jean-Frédéric Leschot (1746-1824) presented three humanoid automata known as The Writer, The Musician and The Draughtsman, for the first time at their workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds. They were a big success. Visitors traveled great distances to admire it.

Already renowned in Europe for the quality and complexity of their horological creations, the Jaquet-Droz father and son team took advantage of this success to get a firm foothold on the international market. The automata presented in 1774 were instrumental to this expansion, serving as a very effective vehicle for communication and marketing Astute businessmen, Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz traveled through Europe with their automata, holding demonstrations at many courts of Europe from 1774 on. They made their way to the court of Louis XVI in Paris, Brussels and the Netherlands.

In 1775, in London, one of the most important centers of clockmaking in the 18th century, Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz met clock merchants specialized in trade with China including the famous James Cox, who handled the sale of goods through the intermediary of his son in Canton, and the Duvals. Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz installed and managed a workshop whose output was intended mainly for China. With respect to the period 1781-1810, there is reason to think that two-thirds of the 650 items sold (mentioned in documents) were shipped to China. Catalogues enumerated the characteristics of the watches, snuff boxes, vials and temples, always sold in pairs. They described the material, the mechanism (sometimes) and the decoration (always), indicating whether a particular object featured enameling, precious stones, singing birds or musical airs. In Geneva, Jean-Frédéric Leschot played a key role from 1784 onward. He perfected, assembled, packed, shipped and ensured the delivery of pieces to London where they were handed over to the merchants that would ship them to Canton.

The Writer was the first Jaquet-Droz automaton. Its creator Pierre Jaquet-Droz began work on it in 1768, pursuing his research in the field of picturesque mechanisms and the artificial duplication of life and motion. About 70 cm tall, the automaton took the form of a little boy sitting on a stool, writing with a goose-quill pen on a mahogany table. This mechanism with more than 4,000 components was no doubt the most complex of the three humanoid automata. Programmable, the device was exceptional in that it could write any 40-character text on three lines. With his right hand, The Writer dipped his pen into an inkwell, with his eyes and head following the movement, then shook his pen and wrote his text, one letter at a time, on a piece of paper that shifted in position.

With thanks to BBC Four and Jaquet-Droz