The First Robot
This looks like a vaguely creepy doll you might find in your grandparents’ house, but it’s actually a self-operating, programmable machine—an ancestor of modern computers. Called “the Writer”, it was created 240 years ago by Swiss watchmaker and mathematician Pierre Jaquet-Droz, who was famous for building not only watches but also animated dolls, automata, and mechanical birds that fascinated kings and emperors across the world.
Astonishingly, the Writer is made up of 6,000 individual parts, perfectly miniaturised to fit fully within the automata. A stack of 40 “cams” (rotating or sliding pieces) is at the machine’s core, and as it moves, three cam followers read the shape of its edge and translates this into arm movements. These movements are controlled by a large wheel made up of letters that can be reordered or replaced—i.e., programmed. With its quill pen and ink, the machine can write messages up to 40 elegant letters long and across four lines.
But the Writer isn’t unique—it has two siblings. Jaquet-Droz and his family also made a “Musician” automata, who plays an organ, and a “Draughtsman” automata, who can draw four graphite pictures. All three were built as publicity to increase the value of Jaquet-Droz’s watches, and they were toured through Europe in the late eighteenth century. The little mechanical marvels were eventually bought for 75,00 francs by the museum of Art and History in Switzerland in 1906, where they remain today.