The Art of Automation

By: Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle   March 9, 2012

A 28-inch tall automaton with 600-piece mechanism called The Writer depicts a little boy sitting on a stool writing with a goose-quill pen on a mahogany table. The lifelike boy is programmable to write any forty-character text onto three lines, one letter at a time, on a piece of paper that shifts in position.

Next to The Writer sits The Musician, an equally petite mechanical girl who plays a choice of five melodies on an organ with two bellows that pump air into forty-eight pipes, breathing as she plays and finishing each piece of music with an elegant bow. She really does play her instrument; unlike most automata whose fingers only follow the keys while the instrument does the playing.

Finally, The Draughtsman, a child with a pen, can draw four different motifs while putting on a spectacular performance.

These three historic humanoid automata were constructed by father-and-son team Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz and Jean-Frédéric Leschot in 1774 at their workshop in La Chaux-de-Fonds and are currently housed in the collections of the Musée d’art et d’histoire de Neuchâtel. They gave rise to the museum’s desire to gain more scientific knowledge about the creative geniuses behind them and the fascinating world of clockwork automata.

Thus the Automates & Merveilles Association, whose goal is to preserve and promote the watchmaking heritage in the canton of Neuchâtel, launched this ambitious maiden project.
The Association then called on the Musée international d’horlogerie de La Chaux-de-Fonds and the Musée d’horlogerie du Locle-Château des Monts to collaborate with it in presenting an exhibition paying tribute to these three outstanding masters of 18th-century clockmaking—Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790), Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz (1752-1791) and their partner and successor Jean-Frédéric Leschot (1746-1824).

The inventors
Originally from the Neuchâtel Mountains, Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz were brilliant inventors and astute businessmen, famous in Europe for producing luxury goods characterized by the purity and elegance of their design and the complexity of their mechanisms, including pieces of jewelry with miniaturized movements, musical clockwork automata, such as singing birds, and clocks with automata, including humanoid automata.
Visitors traveled great distances to admire The Writer (the first Jaquet-Droz automaton, which took six years to build), The Musician and The Draughtsman, completed by La Grotte.

Montres Jaquet Droz, a subsidiary of the Swatch Group since 2000, has unceasingly perpetuated the history and know-how of its founder, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, so when it was asked to participate in an exhibition celebrating the life’s work of Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, it readily jumped at the chance and became the exhibition’s main sponsor.

“When the museums contacted Jaquet Droz to present the project on which they had been working on for the past three years, we didn’t hesitate to link up with it,” says Marc A. Hayek, CEO of Montres Jaquet Droz. “This exhibition will be the most important one ever organized around the work of Jaquet-Droz, father and son, in the 18th century. It will show the visitor the extent of the genius of the family, as well as the wealth of a collection created in less than sixty years.”

Opens in April
The Automates & Merveilles exhibition, which opens April 28 and remains open until September 30, 2012, will be divided into three sections. Each of the three museums will explore one aspect of the life and times of the Jaquet-Droz family that is covered by its own collections, based on one of the three humanoid automata preserved at the Musée d’art et d’histoire de Neuchâtel. This means that two of the automata will relocate to the partner museums for the occasion.

The Musée d’art et d’histoire de Neuchâtel will reveal who the Jaquet-Droz family and Leschot really were, how they came to start their business and how they conquered the world. It will unveil the role automata played in their collections intended for the luxury market, how they were used in the 18th century as tools for scientific and philosophical research and their similarities with the robots of today and tomorrow.

The Musée international d’horlogerie de La Chaux-de-Fonds will amaze visitors with  intricate movements and mechanisms, highlighting automated musical production in particular. Musical boxes, musical automata, street organs, mechanical musical instruments, chimes, glockenspiels, mystery clocks, perpetual motion mechanisms and celestial automata such as planetariums and clocks indicating complex astronomical information will be on display.

Masterpieces of miniaturization and precious decoration will be showcased at the Musée d’horlogerie du Locle – Château des Monts. Starting in the second half of the 18th century, the miniaturization of mechanical and musical movements gained in popularity and Pierre and Henri-Louis excelled in this field. Master clockmakers who worked with the Jaquet-Droz and the heirs of this tradition will be presented. These craftsmen incorporated singing birds, musical boxes or animated scenes into objects, and created humanoid automata and small mechanical animals.

Sharing the riches
Together with the scientific and technical cooperation of many partners, including Swiss and European graduate schools, museums and institutions, the three museums decided to share their expertise and collections in this exhibition, which has been enriched by many exceptional pieces on loan from private and public collections. About 250 pieces will be on display with objects ranging from clocks, pocket watches and automata to music boxes, birdcages and snuffboxes.

Visitors will be taken on a journey from the 18th to the 21st century, confirming that a close tie still binds the Age of Enlightenment to the third millennium. Hayek notes, “The clock and watchmaking industry, which started in the Neuchâtel mountains at the end of the 17th century, made rapid strides in the 18th century, chiefly in Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds. The latter became the center of the clock industry in Switzerland and acquired a European reputation, thanks to Jaquet-Droz and many other master craftsmen. What made Jaquet-Droz very famous was, of course, his automata, which were the first to fit the mechanism into very small objects such as watches, pistols and opera glasses.”

A forward-thinker always searching for new solutions, Pierre Jaquet-Droz was a product of the Enlightenment, paving the way for others to follow. His strategic audacity and far-reaching vision saw the potential of foreign markets, and his elegant and travel-oriented philosophy still forms the core of Montres Jaquet Droz’s brand identity today, nearly three centuries later. Pierre and Henri-Louis crisscrossed Europe with their automata, holding demonstrations at many European royal courts from 1774 onwards.
In 1775, Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz set up his “mechanical show” in London, demonstrating the technical skills and creativity of clockmakers. He met clock merchants specialized in trade with China and installed and managed a workshop there with output made primarily for the Chinese market.

“Pierre Jaquet-Droz was an ingenious inventor and a man of uncommon vision who conquered the royal courts of Europe and China with his stunning creations,” says Hayek. “He was always at the forefront of developments in watchmaking, creating, for a clientele of connoisseurs, limited series that were seen as true artistic masterpieces: fabulous humanoid automata and precious musical watches.”

Surrounded by the best watchmakers, alchemists, mechanics, enamellers and gemstone craftsmen, Pierre Jaquet-Droz opened three manufactures, including one in London. He consolidated his international reputation by opening a workshop in Geneva, the first ever established in that city.

He was a man truly ahead of his time.

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