Technology in the arts

It was known to all of my friends where I was raised at the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas.

That whine . . . six horizontally opposed cylinders (“boxer” the Germans call it) moving back and forth at exceedingly high rates of acceleration. Intake, compression, ignition, exhaust over and over again all in the service of motivating a sculpture on four wheels to move in a single direction at high velocity.

A friend’s older brother drove the American dream machine – a Dodge Super Bee. A classic V-8 sound emanating from a car whose running gear hadn’t changed much in 20 or more years. The other kids thought it was pretty cool.

And of course there was the occasional sound of a passing vintage British sports car or the week-day ritual of our neighbor – “Clark Kent” I thought to myself – who came home from work in a Corvette wearing his nice business suit only to emerge from his garage a half-hour later on his Harley Sportster wearing his Banditos vest and tattered blue jeans. In those days the Harley sound was unmistakeable. “Thumpa-da-thumpa-da . . .”

But to a kid accustomed to the game of identifying military aircraft flying overhead by the sound they made there was no sound quite so sweet as that made by a brand new 1967 Porsche 911S  (“driven as it as meant to be” as my father would say) as it screamed past our flag football game returning my father home from work. The circle of friends in the sports car world he inhabited while working for Porsche Cars Southwest helped introduced me to the idea that art and engineering were next of kin.

So it was natural for me to find fascination in the world of automatons. There were countless examples in the odd museums and wacky collections we visited. Whirring gears, creaking mechanisms – crude but mesmerizing attempts to mimic the natural movements of living creatures. That fascination for the connection between technology and art, mechanics and aesthetics – heck, even science and silliness has informed my interests ever since.

So when I first stumbled upon the interesting story of the pile of brass gears, cams and assorted mechanical body parts “dumped on the steps” of the Franklin Institute in 1928 and only recently appreciated for what they were I had to know more. So now the Institute has put together a more detailed account of the adventure on their website.

"Draughtsman-Writer" by Henri Maillardet
“Draughtsman-Writer” by Henri Maillardet

The Draughtsman-Writer belongs to the golden age of automatons when technology was at stage where the talented individual could master an extraordinary level of facility with it’s disparate bits and pieces. DR’s given talent is writing and drawing. And perhaps the most intriguing part was the discovery that it can identify it own maker. The text it writes in an arc at the bottom of the work below reads “Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet” or “Written by the Automaton of Maillardet.”



There are videos (1) and (2) on the website that show the amazing facility of this creation.

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