The Jaquet-Droz Automata

(all text is from wikipedia)
The Jaquet-Droz automata refer to three doll automata built between 1768 and 1774 by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis and Jean-Frédéric Leschot: the Musician, the drawer and the writer. The dolls are still functional, and can be seen at the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire of Neuchâtel, in Switzerland. They are considered to be among the remote ancestors of modern computers.

The automata were designed and built as advertisement and entertainment toys designed to improve the sales of watches among the nobility of Europe in the 18th century. They were carried around, and lost at several points. The History and Archeology society of Neuchâtel eventually bought them in 1906 and gave them to the museum, where they have been ever since.

The Musician
is a female organ player. The music is not faked, in the sense that it is not recorded or played by a musical box: the doll is actually playing a genuine (yet custom-built) instrument by pressing the keys with her fingers. She "breathes" (the movements of the chest can be seen), follows her fingers with her head and eyes, and also makes some of the movements that a real player would do -- balancing the torso for instance.

The Drawer is a young child who can actually draw four different images: a portrait of Louis XV, a royal couple (believed to be Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI), a dog with "Mon toutou" ("my doggy") written beside it, and a scene of Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly.

The drawer works by using a system of cams which code the movements of the hand in two dimensions, plus one to lift the pencil. The automaton also moves on his chair, and he periodically blows on the pencil to remove dust.

The Writer is the most complex of the three automata. Using a system similar to the one used for the Drawer for each letter, he is able to write any custom text up to 40 letters long (the text is rarely changed; one of the latest instances was in honour of president François Mitterrand when he toured the city). The text is coded on a wheel where characters are selected one by one. He uses a goose feather to write, which he inks from time to time, including a shake of the wrist to prevent ink from spilling. His eyes follow the text being written, and the head moves when he takes some ink.

(bonus link: the creepiest automaton I've ever seen on youtube here)

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