Ph.D. Candidate, University of Connecticut
Among the artwork in the Minot family papers is a drawing of Cupid practicing archery. Dated 29 April 1835, it would be entirely unremarkable if rendered by a human hand. Amazingly, it was drawn by an automaton machine, a clockwork boy capable of tracing out various pictures and poems. At the time, this automaton was known as Maelzel's Juvenile Artist.
Automata are mechanical devices capable of performing specific tasks without human guidance. They have existed since antiquity, but the quality and genius of many eighteenth and nineteenth century machines captivated the scientific imaginations of Americans. Audiences at automata exhibitions consisted of both the young and the old, and men and women alike.
Born in Germany, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel (1772-1838) was the best known exhibitor of automata in early nineteenth century America. A mechanical genius known for inventing the metronome, Maelzel brought a number of automata to the United States in 1826. The most famous of these was The Turk, a chess-playing automaton created by Wolfgang von Kemplen in 1770. The Turk was not a true automaton, but a cleverly designed hoax; it was operated by a man hidden in a sliding hollow. Edgar Allen Poe famously attempted to debunk The Turk's illusion in an 1836 essay for The Southern Literary Messenger after witnessing it play in Richmond. Richmond wasn't Maelzel's only stop, however. The Turk and Maelzel's legitimate automata, including a trumpet player and tightrope dancers, traveled to various American cities in the 1820s and 1830s. Newspaper accounts and popular literature demonstrate Americans' fascination with the exhibit. Lydia Maria Child devoted a chapter to Maelzel's automata in The Girl's Own Book (1831), describing their functions and appearance through a fictitious dialogue between an aunt and her niece. The aunt alternately attends Maelzel's exhibit in Boston or London depending on the edition's year and place of publication, but she always dutifully promises to bring her niece the next time Maelzel is in town.
In early 1835, Maelzel returned to Boston to display his automata, including the Juvenile Artist. The 1 May 1835 edition of the Boston Investigator describes the show as a "splendid exhibition of mechanism" and lists several other automatons in the exhibition, both "human"—the Animated Tight Rope Dancer, the Musical Lady—and animal—"the automatons hummingbird, mouse, spider and serpent, composed of the finest gold and embossed with diamonds, pearls, and other precious stones." While there is no record of who in the Minot family acquired the drawing, a classmate of Francis Minot (1822-1899) recalled that the well-known physician engaged in various mechanical experiments as a boy. Francis, a teenager in 1835, also claimed to have received lessons from Maelzel. According to the same classmate, Francis's mother, Louisa Davis Minot, shared her son's interest and encouraged his activities; the automaton's drawing is kept in a folder with her artwork. It is likely that one of these two witnessed the Juvenile Artist in action on 29 April and preserved the drawing of Cupid.
Maelzel's Juvenile Artist may be the automaton called the Draughtsman-Writer, currently in the possession of The Franklin Institute of Philadelphia. The Swiss mechanist Henri Maillardet built the Draughtsman-Writer in the early nineteenth century, but the automaton's former owners attributed it to Maelzel. One explanation for this is that Maelzel simply acquired the automaton in the 1830s, and like The Turk, the Draughtsman-Writer came to be known as "Maelzel's." If this were the case, the automaton would have been auctioned off in Philadelphia to pay Maelzel's debts after his death in 1838. The restored machine, which can be viewed in action on YouTube, is capable of drawing the same Cupid more than 175 years after a member of the Minot family witnessed the Juvenile Artist in Boston. See videos and further information on the automaton at the Franklin Institute.
Bailly, Christian. Automata: The Golden Age; 1848-1914. London: Robert Hale Limited, 2003.
Levitt, Gerald M. The Turk, Chess Automaton. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2006.