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Swiss Clockmaker Made First Robot 240 Years Ago

Updated on July 12, 2015
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I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science in 1995. My interests include political and social issues and history.

In the 18th Century there seemed to be a demand for nifty pieces of technology like the automatons created by that era's mechanical geniuses. Though, various automatons had been created before this era, arguably the first self-contained and self-generated working robot was created by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, famed clock-maker and businessman who began making automatons for royal families and the well-to-do.

He was so good at his craft that, in Spain, he was accused of witchcraft. He was let off the hook, however, when he showed the Inquisitor how his robots actually worked. He was allowed to continue to promote his products.

So, what were Jaquet-Droz robots like, what were they made of, how did they operate and what did they do? Let's find out.

Pierre Jaquet_Droz Automata: The Writer, The Musician, and the Draughtsman.
Pierre Jaquet_Droz Automata: The Writer, The Musician, and the Draughtsman. | Source

His Automatons

Jaquet-Droz principal robots were the Writer, The Draughtsman and The Musician. The Writer was a little boy who could write words, sentences, himself and followed his own writing with his eyes. The Draughtsman drew pictures. The Musician, well, played songs.

For purposes here, I'd like to concentrate on The Writer.

It is important to note that this robot had no outside source of power. Prior to Jaquet-Droz design, automatons typically were powered by some outside energy source of steam or water. His design allowed the robot to operate on its own, once programmed. Which is another notable aspect of his machines. They were the forerunners of the modern-day computer, able to be programmed to take specific actions.

The Writer Automaton
The Writer Automaton | Source

How Does The Writer Automaton Work?

All of the gears and parts that generate The Writer fit within its body. Part of the genius of Pierre Jaquet-Droz was in the fact that he miniaturized the parts of the robot to make it self-contained and was able to make the parts work together and on each other to move the robots appropriately and according to program.

Inside the robot boy is a wheel with interchangeable parts that are read by another gear that is able to decipher the shapes of the cams on the wheel. This is why the boy is programmable, like a computer, to write different words and sentences up to 40 words.

This internal mechanism moves the arm of the boy to dip his pen in the ink well and write out messages on paper, applying the right strokes and the right pressure along the way.

The Significance of Robotics

People have been dreaming up and drafting up plans for robotics for thousands of years. It was in the 18th Century when inventors like Pierre Jaquet-Droz created self-operating automata. As we moved into the Industrial Age we found a need to automate production, to increase profit and make manufacture more efficient. In the 20th Century we began to make robots, machines that make products and nowadays we have robots on space-ships.

As far back as Aristotle, we have speculated on the possibility that robots could do the hard work. In fact, it's been suggested in more recent times, because of economic and technological reality, that human labor will ultimately be replaced by automated production and services in industries across the board. The economy as it is, mainly employs people in the services industries these days, at low pay, and even these jobs are going away and being automated. There might very well be a time when we face an age of complete unemployment in the old sense of that word and in turn face a major change in the way we live. However, personally, I feel this could open the door for us to do what we love, what truly drives our creative tendencies, as opposed to our current tendency of working at fruitless soul-sucking jobs that take up most of our time and divert us from truly reaching our greatest potentials. It is, in fact, beyond me why we stay stuck in the notion that we must forever labor away, typically working under somebody's thumb and for the benefit of someone else, doing things that are mindless and unfulfilling. Machines taking over such work could just as well be a blessing and not a curse, depending, really, on where we go with it.

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