Living Machines — The Futurist Tradition Of Jaquet Droz
There are plenty of things that set humans apart from even our most intelligent planetary cohabitants. Here’s one that fascinates me in particular — we replicate in effigy as well as in response to our biological mandate. Which is to say, we create more of ourselves, reproducing in the same way that the rest of the animal kingdom does, but also in more abstract ways.
The very concept of portraiture, whether through painting, drawing, photography or sculpture, reveals our desire to evoke the presence of those we miss. No other animal does this. On a different level entirely is the creation of those who have yet to exist outside of our imaginations — from invisible playmates in our childhood to the entire worlds that spring from the minds of novelists, screenwriters and artists.
Our greatest challenge in this process of creation is that of animation. Imparting life to the things we have made is a step we have yet to achieve, and its attainment is a mainstay in speculative fiction, whether that of Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) or Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?).
In the mid to late 18th century, Pierre Jaquet-Droz created three wonders of mechanical art — the automata known as The Musician, The Draughtsman and The Writer. These were extremely lifelike figures which were programmed respectively to play a custom-built organ, draw a set of preset pictures and write any message within a limited number of characters.
These were shown throughout Europe to attract attention and customers to the Jaquet Droz watchmaking concern, and focus was placed on the mechanical prowess of these pieces, with demonstrations to illustrate how the automata worked through exclusively mechanical means. A complex series of cams and levers was visible through openings in the midsections of the automata and the intricacy of such a mechanism that works smoothly to this day is testament to the true horological ingenuity of Pierre Jaquet-Droz.
The automata are housed in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Neuchâtel; barely half an hour away are the current premises of the resurrected Jaquet Droz brand, in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
The contemporary efforts of Jaquet Droz to revive the prestige of the old days of automata creation began in 2012, with the debut of the Bird Repeater. The following year brought the Charming Bird, which garnered a slew of well-deserved awards for modern-day excellence in mechanical watchmaking. It featured a minute sculpted bird with articulated wings, which would twirl around and erupt in birdsong when activated.
One thing was lacking in the Jaquet Droz collection — an automaton watch for ladies. This lack was comprehensively addressed in 2014 with the introduction of the Lady 8 Flower, which displayed a blossom which opened at the press of a button to display a rotating briolette-cut diamond.
As astounding as these mechanical feats were, they were well matched by the beauty of their decoration. Techniques such as engraving and enamelling (highlighted in timepieces such as the Petite Heure Minute with animal appliqués and the paillonnée models) adorn the automaton watches of Jaquet Droz, making them aesthetic as well as horological descendants of the original Jaquet-Droz automata.
There is a small technical difference between automata and androids. Whereas automata are the wider category of mechanical animations that are designed to delight and impress audiences, androids are the subcategory of automata that are shaped like humans. It is unlikely that the Jaquet-Droz androids would have dreamed of electric sheep — the 18th century was not a time at which anyone dreamed of electric anything — so they haven’t managed to fulfil that particular criteria of sentient life. In as much as they capture the imaginations of everyone they meet and continually inspire the finest works of high watchmaking from Jaquet Droz, however, they certainly are alive.