240-Year-Old Writer Automaton is the Ancestor of Today’s Computers

“The Writer” is a clockwork automaton created in the 1770s by the Swiss-born famous watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz. The mechanism, designed to write words and sentences of up to 40 characters, still works perfectly after almost 240 years, baffling everyone with its complexity. The very concept of a machine that could mechanically reproduce the human act of writing was well ahead of its time. Moreover, it must have taken a lot of time, patience and resourcefulness not only to put the idea into practice and build the mechanism, but also to give the machine the look of a boy.

The Writer uses cam technology: as the cams move, the cam followers interpret their trajectory and move the boy’s arm accordingly. The cams play an important part in the mechanism because they control not just the strokes of the pen, but also its pressure on the paper. Indeed, as Professor Simon Schaffer states in BBC Four’s documentary “Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams”, The Writer is “one of the most remarkable realizations of cam technology”.¬†Another fascinating detail regarding the mechanism of the automaton is that it can write any word (and, therefore, any sentence) and follow the text with its eyes. What makes this possible is the fact that the wheel controlling the cams is composed of signs and letters that can easily be re-arranged in any order to form various combinations. Actually, the fact that it is “programmable” makes The Writer the ancestor of modern computers.


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