A Tale of Two Automata
Kyle Olmon
New York, New York

I recently read an excellent book that chronicled the story of a young man and a mysterious machine.  The book is
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  The young man is the namesake, Hugo Cabret, and the machine
- an automaton, to be precise - a small mechanical figure seated at a table that can write and draw.  In this
delightful story, Hugo discovers the old broken ‘robot’ in the ruins of the burned-down museum that claimed the
life of his father.  Once repaired by the boy, the automaton signs a name at the conclusion of a drawing, revealing
the creator of this marvelous machine. From there the story takes another fanciful turn, leading Hugo into a
remarkable finale.
This past November, I had the good fortune to join Ellen and Harold
Rubin and many others to hear Mr. Selznick speak about his award-
winning book at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.  During his talk, we
learned that near the completion of the book a parallel story came to
pass involving the repair of another mysterious automaton.

In 1928, the Franklin Institute received a donation of a heap of parts
in the form of a ruined brass machine.  It was in need of a
restoration after being exchanged by many hands and surviving at
least one fire. It took the museum about four years to assemble the
pieces into… a small mechanical figure seated at a table that can
write and draw.  There was some speculation of who the creator
was, but it was not confirmed until this machine was repaired in
1932, and the figure signed the name Maillardet at the end of a
poem.  Maillardet’s automaton has remained at the Franklin and for
more than 30 years has been under the care of Charles Penniman,
who joined us at Selzick’s presentation.   Mr. Penniman revealed
that the automaton was likely made in the earliest years of the
1800s, traveled through Europe to Russia before it disappeared,
and possibly resurfaced at P.T. Barnum’s museum in Philly which
burned to the ground in 1851.  At the Franklin, the automaton has
occasionally been demonstrated, but not on display, despite a
second major restoration/cleaning in 1980.
When Mr. Selznick was verifying some of the technical aspects of his book, he came across the Maillardet
automaton and inquired about seeing it in action.  The Franklin informed him that the automaton was in disrepair
but he could still view it.  This is where for the second time Selznick introduces the pivotal character in the story.  
Remembering the complex constructions in
Knickknack Paddywhack, he got in touch with Andy Baron who flew
out to the Franklin Institute in April of 2007 to bring the mechanical boy back to life.  After two weeks of careful
documentation and repairs, Maillardet’s automaton was restored to a level not seen since its touring days some
150 years ago.  The automaton’s expressive eyes now followed his pen as he completes a cycle that’s comprised
of a drawing of Cupid on a chariot being pulled by birds, followed by an elaborately rigged tall-masted sailing ship,
a beautifully rendered poem (in English script), a drawing of a Chinese temple, a poem in French, a drawing of
Cupid firing arrows into a heart on a tree (with love birds on a fountain in the foreground), and finally another poem
in French, in which the automaton confides that he is the dear favorite child of the ladies (“and their husbands
too”).  A remarkable feat for a machine that was created around 1800, making Maillardet’s automaton the
probable record holder for the largest “memory” contained in a machine of that era and beyond. (Keep in mind that
the most innovative inventions of the day were the cotton gin, gas lamps, and the steam engine locomotive.)
On that sunny November afternoon in the
Franklin, we were granted a demonstration of
Maillardet’s automaton, under the watchful eye of
Mr. Baron, and witnessed the first large-scale
public performance of the automaton since its
revival.  In conversation afterwards the magical
performance, Baron confided that during his
recent restoration of Maillardet’s automaton, he
not only relied on his years repairing clocks and
antiques, but also his time working with paper.  
He pointed out that there were many occasions
where he had to draw on the skills he has
learned as a paper engineer to arrive at a
solution.  Imagine that – the same principles and
mechanics translate from moveable to machine.  
(I guess when one looks back to Meggendorfer
and his background in puppetry, we should not
be surprised at what can be accomplished.)  In
conversation with Mr. Selznick, Baron remarked
that he sees a little of himself in Hugo Cabret
and considering the striking coincidences in
histories of the two automatons; it is only fitting.
For more information on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick please visit:
For more information on Maillardet’s automaton and the Franklin Institute please visit:
If you would like a copy of the restoration report that Andy Baron prepared for the Franklin Institute upon completion
of the repairs, you may email him at: andy@popyrus.com
Ed. note - This interview was published in the February 2008 edition of Movable Stationery: Volume 16, Number 1
by the Movable Book Society.  In January
The Invention of Hugo Cabret received the 2008 Caldecott Medal,
awarded to the artist of the most distinguished picture book for children.  The announcement was made after the
submission of the article.