Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Antique Robots

Let's just say for the moment that you looked at this post title and went "Whaaa?"

We are a household of geeks:  gamer boyz & grrlzs, Whovians, Trekkies, Medieval swordplay, Cosplaying, sell-your-firstborn to George Lucas kind of geeks.  (My son and I had a running arguement for a long time about which was better - Star Wars or Star Trek- I STILL wanna have Spock's baby)
So yes, we have an action plan for a Zombie Apocolypse, and worry about Robots taking over the world.... or at least playing some music or drawing us a picture or two.

A couple weeks ago I was checking out the news and came across an article with video about Boston Dynamics using one of their robots called "Petman" to test out hazmat gear to be used by the military:

You can check out the link to their article and view the video of this incredibly human-like robot....I was left with visions of a Terminator genesis. More Youtube searching by a slightly paranoid me, and I found disembodied robot legs hopping around at MIT,   "Big Dog" robots making their way along beaches and through the woods,  and a "Cheetah" robot that can go almost 30 miles per hour.   And here I am with Boston only 75 miles away.  Kinda makes a girl want to sleep with an EMP disruptor under her pillow.

Going back a few years, I remember watching a history program on European watch & clock makers. One  man they featured was Pierre Jacquet-Droz. Pierre lived in the mid 1700's and was a gifted clock maker well known for his large clocks.   In 1758, he was introduced to the Royal Court and King of Spain, Ferdinand VI, (who was a more of a lover than a fighter unlike some other height-challenged megalomaniacal persons of that era)  King Ferdy was a great patron of art and culture.   Pierre ended up selling several intricate clocks to the Spanish Court and thus the Jaquet-Droz house became reknowned to the other royal courts throughout Europe.

Of course Pierre had to become bigger and better, and in the quest to do so, he along with his sons (who had joined him in the family business) created four Automatons in the late 1760's:
 "The Draftsman" (Le Dessinateur), "The Musician" (La Muscienne), "The Writer" (L'Ecrivain) and "The Cave" (Le Cave).

Each of these pieces were basically lifesized androids, (1:1 ratio) who functioned by intricate clockwork movements.

Each of the different pieces did as their names suggested - The draftsman drew one of several drawings, the Musician played on a small organ, and the Writer wrote a handful of words and phrases. The largest one (The Cave)  was a diorama of sorts -showing a palace and garden with moving figures in different areas. The Cave unfortunately did not survive Napolean's conquest that happened within the next decade (what did I tell you about those megalomaniacal people?)  The other three automatons are still around today.  Here is a video on youtube that shows these pieces in action (the dialogue is in French, but you don't need to understand it to see these lovelies working)  They were on tour for awhile, but now reside in the Museum of Art & History of Neuchatel.  These Automatons were built and traveled around as 'entertainment & advertisements' to increase the sales of watches and clocks among the royalty.
I found this blog post here (from a social network called Watchonista, all about watches)  that has a lot more  detail and pictures of these amazing pieces

internal workings of "The Draftsman"

Drawing showing "The Cave"  - Darn you Napolean!

Here are some things that I find absolutely amazing - 
  • The intricacies of these dolls. (I don't know much about clockwork mechanisms, but I am reminded of  music boxes or player pianos where there are little metal plates with holes or risers on them that cause different motions (or notes)
  • These were created in a time essentially when people were still working by candlelight or gas-lamp. Before they had invented things like the steam engine, electricity, and even had proper sanitation in most places!
  • How genteel these antique robots were - teeming with art and beauty. I wouldn't mind sharing a room with one of these guys.  (On the other hand if I saw Big Dog or Petman coming down the street, I'd make for the nearest alleyway and grab a pitchfork....or a screwdriver.)

The House of Jaquet-Droz is still around today, however has become part of the Swatch Group.  That's right, the same company that gave us these beautiful mechanical marvels 250 years ago, has culminated its engineering capabilities to create the iconic accessory of the eighties - the Swatch Watch
 (wait, what?)

Be still my fashion sensibility!

There is one other thing I would like to share with you, my dear readers.... These aren't robots in the traditional sense,  however I find myself mesmerized while watching them.  They are kinetic sculptures created by Dutch Artist Theo Jansen, and honestly,  a bit creepier than automatons (but in a good way)

  He calls them "Strand Beests" (Beach Animals) and he himself says that he is creating new life forms that he is hoping to put forth in herds on the beach to live their own lives.  Watch them in action on his website.
They are basically created from large PVC tubing with joints and sails, powered by the awesome wind coming off the North Sea.  They are environmentally helpful in that a secondary task of theirs is kicking sand back onto the dunes to help keep down erosion.    So far I am relieved that Mr. Jansen is the only one creating these things,  but if I start seeing wee little baby strand beests, I'm going to start adding saws and bolt-cutters to my screwdriver arsenal.

Merci aux websites pour l'infomation & photos: : Ville de Neuchatel - Musee d'Art et d'Histoire -HORLOGERIE & JOAILLERIE -pictures of strandbeests - Background info on Pierre Jaquet-Droz & his works.

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