In Depth

Jaquet Droz and the birth of computing

How an 18th century watchmaker paved the way for programmable computers

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The name Jaquet Droz is today synonymous with high-end Swiss watches, but in his lifetime, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, was best known for his automata – superbly crafted mechanical dolls that could draw, write and even play music.

Born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, in 1721, Jaquet-Droz began his career as a manufacturer of long-case clocks and watches. A gifted inventor, he rose to international prominence after he was invited to the royal courts of Spain, France, China, India and Japan, where kings and emperors marvelled at the ingenuity of his animated dolls and machines.

Gravure ancienne

Gravure ancienne

The peak of his career came in 1773, when he built three automata: The Draughtsman, The Musician and The Writer - which is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Designed to look like a small boy, The Writer sits at a desk holding a quill. Wind him up and he dips his pen in an inkpot and moves his arm to write short sentences of up to 40 characters.

The Writer is constructed from around 6,000 parts and features 40 replaceable interior cams - textured circular disks that allow an operator to determine the boy's movements.

Professor Simon Schaffer told BBC 4’s Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams the piece was "one of the most remarkable realisations of cam technology", adding: "It's perhaps the world's most astonishing surviving automaton."

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However, what is most impressive about The Writer, Schaffer says, is that the wheel controlling the cams is made up of letters that can be reordered, allowing the boy "to be programmed."

"This beautiful boy is thus a distant ancestor of the modern programmable computer," he says.

Today, the watch brand that bears Jaquet-Droz's name continues to produce animated mechanisms, miniaturised and embedded in timepieces such as the Charming Bird watch, which features a tiny automaton tit that sings and dances at the press of a button.

Unveiled last year, the Charming Bird is a "feat of complex micro-engineering," which uses "a modern version of [Jaquet-Droz's] bellows and pistons system... to mimic bird calls," A Blog To Watch says. "Nothing quite like this has ever been produced in wrist watch form." 

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The watch went on to be awarded the Mechanical Exception prize at the 2015 Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix.

The recently unveiled 2016 edition of the watch, limited to just 16 pieces, features a hand-painted and engraved mother-of-pearl dial. 

Since the 2015 edition, the timepiece has also been given a mechanical overhaul, with the bird's song now generated by air compression rather than vibration, "an innovation made possible by introducing three minute sapphire crystal tubes," the brand says.

With its roots in early computing, and its most recent model pushing the boundaries of mechanical miniaturisation, the Charming Bird is "an ode to the rich creativity of Jaquet Droz's past as well as the promises of today," Watch Time says. "It is a piece that encapsulates the fascinating history of Jaquet Droz, both watchmaker and watch brand."

For more, visit www.jaquet-droz.com

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