Programmable Machines and How People See the Past

It is a well-documented phenomenon that a living generation often views itself as the more advanced and civilized than those of eras long gone.  A stunning reminder of the presumptuous nature of that belief came to me recently in a video from the BBC, documenting a Swiss automaton that pre-dates the American Revolution.

The automaton, built by famous Swiss watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz (along with his son Henri-Louis and another man, Jean-Frédéric Leschot), is known as “The Writer.”  It is the most complex of three automatons created by the men, the others known as “The Musician” and “The Drawer.”  The automatons, built between 1768 and 1774, were used by the men to help sell their watches.  After decades of private ownership and, at times, disappearance, the three machines were donated to the Neuchâtel Museum of Art and History in 1906.

The three Jaquet-Droz automatons. Courtesy of the Neuchatel Museum.

Of the three, “The Writer” stands out, for a remarkable reason.  Apart from the amazing craft work used by Jaquet-Droz to construct the figure, “The Writer” is exceptional because it is fully programmable.  Unlike “The Musician,” whose music cannot be altered, or “The Drawer,” who is limited to four figures, “The Writer” is capable of writing any string of characters, up to 40, in a line.  Using a wheel of rearrangeable letters and spaces, the automaton is argued by some to be the first computer.

Videos and animated images of automatons appear to be surging in popularity on the Internet currently.  “The Writer” was the subject of a recent Imgur post which received great popularity, as was a Japanese archer automaton.  The comments on these videos, image posts, and online articles all point to a similar realization among viewers: people in the past were more skilled and technologically advanced than is popularly thought.

An ad for Ironized Yeast to make women less skinny.

These automatons, and others like them, are held in archives and museums.  In fact, repositories of all kinds hold information, documents, and objects that challenge modern notions of the past.  Recently, there seems to have been an increase in public interest in images that shake current beliefs of history., a popular image browsing website, recently posted an old newspaper advertisement for Ironized Yeast to make skinny women build fat to look better (yes, you did read that correctly).   Another stirring image, that of a group of women walking around in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1972 recently gained popularity on another image-sharing site, Imgur.

A group of women walk through pre-Talibani Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1972.

The question for archives and museums of all sizes, then, is this: what do you hold that would challenge current ideas about history?  How can you set the record straight on something interesting in your community or field?  Maybe your repository doesn’t hold the world’s first robot.  It might, however, contain letters between family members, photographs, or even artifacts, which might illuminate an unseen past.  We all cannot be like George Chauncey in the writing of Gay New York, but we all can find something that shakes up current models of the past.


2 thoughts on “Programmable Machines and How People See the Past

  1. This is a really interesting topic! I think I have seen a replica on The Drawer in the Ben Franklin Institute and it was really fascinating. Things that change our perception of the past are always really fascinating and they sometimes show how much we depend on past technology to create our own technology. Great post!

  2. All I can think of is the automaton in Hugo… and those automaton things from the Matt Smith seasons of Dr. Who. It is rather astounding how archives control what we know about history in such a direct way. If a letter from someone important is thrown out because it’s deemed unimportant, then it’s lost while a freshman paper might be considered important enough to keep. It’s a little frightening the control over knowledge they wield…

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