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It Turns Out That Strange And Unsettling Robots Are Not Anything New

If you think programmable robots are an invention of the last century, think again. Turns out that robots, and the computers that run them, are much older than you may imagine. We could talk about the Antikythera Mechanism and Ada Lovelace, but as fascinating as they are, their fantastic cyborg creepiness can”t hold a candle to the creations of Pierre Jaquet-Droz. This 18th-century Swiss watchmaker made the all-too-realistic automata you see here.

The automaton”s eyes move, making it appear as if it”s thinking about what it”s writing.

Jaquet-Droz made several of these moving, programmable creations, but The Writer is widely acknowledged to be his masterpiece. The Writer comes in the shape of a small, barefoot boy wearing a fancy, red jacket, sitting at a desk, and writing with a quill. He”s made up of an astonishing 6,000 moving parts, which allow him to blink and move in a startlingly natural way.

More astonishing still is that he can be programmed to write a message of up to 40 letters in any combination. That means that 240 years ago, we already had an automaton that could write customized text.

Here we see the mechanism that allows the letters to be programmed in sequence so The Writer can spell out customized messages.

The Writer has a twin known as The Draughtsman, which was created by Jaquet-Droz”s son. Like The Writer, The Draughtsman is operated by a series of complex mechanisms, and he can draw any of four images: a royal-looking couple, a portrait of Louis XV, a dog, and a scene of Cupid in a chariot pulled by a butterfly. However, he”s slightly more streamlined in his mechanisms than the writer, as the younger Jaquet-Droz adapted his father”s designs to something more simplified, but no less impressive.

The Draughtsman creating a portrait of Louis XV. Instead of a quill, he has a pencil. Amazing.

There”s also a female automaton who plays an organ, known as The Musician. She can play several tunes with her individually moving fingers that press the keys of the organ that was built for her. Like the others, she also has naturalistic movement, like her eyes moving from side to side as though she”s reading music.

Today, the dolls are on display at the Musee d”Art et d”Histoire of Neuchatel in Switzerland. After so many years, they”re still fully functional and continue to perform for visitors. Even today, with our comparatively advanced technology, these automatons are still masterpieces of clockwork and automation. They”re actually considered some of the oldest computers in existence due to their programmability.

And since they can still function after all this time, it”s pretty safe to say that they”ll be leading the machine uprising. I, for one, welcome our robot overlords.