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Trio of antique robots lure visitors to Neuchâtel

The Jaquet-Droz androids were built by the eponymous clockmakers in the late 1700s.


Neuchâtel has made a name for itself as the home of the world's first known robots, dating back to the 1700s.

After a minute-long ride on Neuchâtel's funicular linking the station in the hills to the city by the lake, I walk past the site of the Expo.02 "Arteplage" - a floating platform that is one of the stages for Switzerland's national exhibition.

I am accompanied by the constant shriek of seagulls until I get to the Art and History Museum, which is the home of the first family of robots - the Jaquet-Droz androids.

It is an essential stop for any visitor to Expo.02 in Neuchâtel, in order to compare the show called "Robotics", which could prove to be one of Expo's main attractions, with the 18th century androids.

Artist, Writer and Musician

The three automated figures - the Artist, the Writer and the Musician - built between 1768 and 1774, by the clock maker, Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his son, are the most perfectly preserved in the world. Jacquet-Droz was also responsible for creating one of the first artificial arms ever in Europe.

The automata are brought to life - literally by being wound up - on the first Sunday of every month. For the rest of the time, they are encased in glass boxes in a cold, dark room.

The Writer and the Artist are two life-sized figures of boys, seated at desks. The internal structures of both automata comprise intricate brass wind-up mechanisms - around 4,000 pieces within the body of each of the automata.

On close inspection, it was hard not to ask if the hair and paint on the figures were actually authentic. The watchmaker in charge of the demonstration told me that the original hair and some the clothing had been replaced over the past two centuries.

He added that it takes at least two technicians up to four hours to programme each automaton to carry out specific tasks.

When the rear metal casing of the Artist's body was removed, it was easy to see why its internal wheel of 40 different kinds of lettering - similar to the one in old-fashioned typewriters - required so much work in advance.

King George

When set in motion, the Artist drew perfect sketches of a dog and the profiles of Britain's King George III and his wife, Charlotte. The Writer on the other hand, was wound up to write the words, Jaquet-Droz, in perfect handwriting.

The Musician is the model of a young girl, dressed in a slightly tattered blue crinoline, and seated at a clavichord, on which she played at least three tunes with the pressure of her own fingers. On closer inspection, I noticed - as did the rest of the audience - that there was a small obvious heart beat visible at the centre of her chest.

However, the age of the Musician's mechanism did not stop her like a lot of batty old women from playing one chord too many.

In a similar way, the Artist dropped his head and let out a gust of air from his nose every time a drawing was half-finished, just as a real artist would blow away twirls of erased paper.

A few yards from the museum is the normally peaceful lakeside of Neuchâtel. For the next six months, it will be the site of the city's Expo.02 Arteplage - a showcase for Switzerland's finest technological advances, as demonstrated by "Robotics".

by MaryAnn Mathew

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