Saturday, 29 June 2013

Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams

Just a quick plug for BBC4's recently screened Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, a spellbinding 1-hour documentary on the history of automata - self-operating machines powered by intricate clockwork parts. Presenter Simon Schaffer picks up the story in the 18th century, the golden age of automata when highly skilled watchmakers and inventors used their engineering genius to construct life-like biomechanical devices which could mimic the actions of their human or animal counterparts. Featured in the program are some of the most celebrated and astonishing automata that survive today. In the 1770's Swiss clockmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz's constructed The Writer, a mechanical boy who writes a short elegant handwritten note using a quill and an inkwell. A shot of The Writer's inner recesses reveals the extraordinary amount of work that Jaquet-Droz invested in his creation, the device contains a veritable microcosmic metropolis of almost 6000 miniaturized screws, springs, coils, cogs and cams.

Not content for The Writer to simply reproduce the same note time and again Pierre Jaquet-Droz designed the letter-parts to be interchangeable so the device could write whatever its owner fancied. The Writer and other Jaquet-Droz designed automata - the Draughtsman, a mechanical boy which draws a very artful picture of a dog, and The Musician, a young woman who plays a dulcimer-like instrument - are in effect early prototype computers, devices which are programmable, following a prescribed set of well-defined instructions. What's more fascinating are the philosophical questions posed - how Jaquet-Droz's automata or John Joseph Merlin beautiful Silver Swan (1773) transcend their collection of moving parts and assume a strange lifelike, even soulful presence like so many robotic dreamers that followed them - The Wizard of Oz Tin Man, the replicants of Blade Runner (a film which features a character who designs 21st century toy automata) and the child android from Artificial Intelligence.

If you're interested in medieval curios, and indeed the surrealist films of Jan Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers, I highly recommend you catch Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams.  Better still, Pierre Jaquet-Droz's three surviving automata, which still function are on permanent display at the Museum of Art and History Neuchâtel, in Switzerland while John Joseph Merlin beautiful Silver Swan can be seen a little closer to home at the Bowes Museum Durham, England.


  1. Will certainly seek this out Wes, sounds really interesting. Have you seen Hugo yet?

  2. Haven't seen it Mart, but I get your reference - when I was doing a little research into the history of automata Hugo came up, so I might finally seek this out - admittedly I had little interest in seeing it up to this point (aren't I the dummy here!)

  3. Thought you would be all over it being Scorsese and featuring Melies. I felt the same way regarding the lack of interest when I saw the trailer, but it turned out I adored it.

  4. I know and I feel silly now, that I previously avoided it, but I'm gonna right that wrong and borrow it off a friend of mine who has it on Blu. Thanks Mart, I might have let this one go had it not been for your perceptive comment !