Automatons reached their Golden Age during the eighteenth century, though they date back to the Renaissance when engineers created hydraulic fountains for royal gardens, as well as singing birds and musicians as background decors for banquets, and as moveable, musical centerpieces for tables.
The Joueuse de Tympanon, or "The Dulcimer Player", as it is known in English, was constructed in 1784 by Kintzing and David Roentgen, the king's cabinetmaker (as well as a hundred craftsman from 26 trades), for presentation to Queen Marie-Antoinette at Versailles. It is said that the hair and dress of the figurine were those of the Queen.
In 1785, the Queen bought it and had it placed in the Academy of Science because she believed that an object of this quality and refinement combined with technology belonged in the Academy of Science.
The tunes played by the dulcimer were written by Marie-Antoinette's music teacher, German Christoph Willibald Gluck (see Gluck and Marie-Antoinette).
© Musée des arts et métiers-CNAM
The Musée des artes et métiers, 60 Rue Réaumur, 75003 Paris, France, is custodian to the Joueuse of Tympanon, as well as to an extensive diversity of works which combine automatons, mechanical musical instruments and clockwork.
© Musée des arts et métiers-CNAM
Having had the privilege of viewing this piece during restoration at the Musée's archives located slightly out of Paris, I quickly found myself fascinated by is grace and charm and could only imagine how intrigued Marie-Antoinette might have been when she saw the finished piece.
The musician can play eight tunes on the 46-string dulcimer. The mechanism, which is placed under the stool on which the female figurine sits, consists primarily of a mainspring and a brass cylinder that has sixteen sections of cams and sixteen rows of wedges.
Through a system of levers, the cams actuate the movement of the figurine's forearms, while the wedges control the movement of the hammers.
According to the Musée des arts et métiers, in their English version magazine on the opening of a new permanent exhibition in the renovated former Saint-Martin-des-Champs Abbey, "The aesthetic sophistication of this piece, in addition to the complexity of this mechanism and reproduction of human movement, makes this a true work of art."
Joueuse de tympanon, automate de Rœntgen et Kintzig,
donné par l'Académie des Sciences en 1835,
réparé par Robert-Houdin...
Source: NYPL Digital Gallery
This video begins at the Arts et Métiers, its imprint of genius being seen hanging from the ceiling (video 0:21 - 0:30) and continues at the museum's archives (0:35 - 0:37), where I first saw this magnificent piece.
The dulcimer, well known in Hungry in its modern form, the cymbalo, was designed in the shape of a harpsichord to suit the android's movements. The 23 pairs of chords stretch out perpendicular to the figurine, with the bass notes to the left and the treble notes to the right. The playing style has two movements: a sweeping horizontal movement of the arms and a vertical movement of the hammer.
The motor, made up of a hand-wound spiral spring, supplies the energy, while the gestual memory of the Player is contained in a cylinder equipped with cams and wedges. When red, the cams supply the melody and the sequence of wedges create the rhythm.
After recording each pair of chords separately and then, having removed the dulcimer, a further recording of the mechanical noises made by the figurine (rhythmical noises of the arms), each recording was processed and stored digitally. The pieces played by the dulcimer could be heard, error-free, for the very first time. However, it is said that the quality turned out to be "too perfect, no longer sounding like the player."
In order to correct this, the percussion sounds of each arm were recorded separately while keeping them synchronized. Piezoelectric sensors were placed under the hammers, without interfering with playing, to measure the rhythmical playing afforded to each arm. The data transmitted by the sensors was converted to "MIDI" digital data. The real sound of the Joueuse de Tympanon could now be heard by filtering out double striking, one of the main causes of the bad quality of its playing, and by the "faithful reproduction of rhythmical inequalities (the left-hand percussion is slightly ahead of the right-hand).
© Musée des arts et métiers-CNAM
The automaton received a "genuine musical restoration" with the addition of mechanical noises (the sequencer, containing the real rhythmic playing, controlled the computer, which contained the right pitch of the corrected partition, which in turn commanded the synthetic dulcimer in the memory of the sampler).
This analysis, conducted by the Musée des arts et métiers, resulted in a thorough mechanical and musical diagnosis, which has greatly contributed to a better understanding of the piece. These well-considered actions on behalf of the museum should ensure the dulcimer will be enjoyed for generations to come. La Revue #03 - May 1993
Marie-Antoinette's mother was interested in science and engineering and was reportedly amazed by The Turk, which was built in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor who was hoping to impress Maria Theresa, the Queen of Hungary and Croatia, as well as Queen of Bohemia, and Archduchess of Austria.
The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous
Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine.
The Turk took the form of a large box with a Turkish figure sitting behind it. The chessboard is on top. Von Kempelen would set up the chessboard, open the doors to show the clockwork gear inside, close then again, invite someone to sit down, and then wind up the automaton. It then proceeded to play an impressive game of chess.
This feat of engineering made von Kempelen a celebrity. He soon became an influential engineer in Hungary. Von Kempelen took his machine on tours of Europe, playing against Benjamin Franklin in one occasion. Still, von Kempelen died poor in 1804, and his son sold The Turk to Johann Malzel, a musician and showman who made The Turk world-famous. Even Napoleon Bonapart played against The Turk (The Turk supposedly won).
Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay of The Turk: "Malzel's Chess Player," in which he theorized how it worked. Published in The Southern Literary Messenger in April, 1836, Poe was closest to anyone in discovering its truths, despite his making a few "detective" mistakes.
Leroy L. Panek, in American Literature, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Nov., 1976), pp. 370-372, Published by Duke University Press, goes into extensive detail on what he calls "Poe's First Detective Mistake."
The Turk traveled the globe, ending up in a museum in Philadelphia after Malzel died. Sadly, The Turk was consumed by the fire that stuck the museum.
Naturally, The Turk was a hoax with a human operator, but it was believed to be an automaton for many years. This is largely due in part to the 18th century mindset whereby society was wowed with the possibilities of technology, believing that anything was achievable. Of course, today, with advances in artificial intelligence, we can now create software to run chess programs, but we know that it is a program.
When Marie-Antoinette would have received her automaton, she would have no doubt been delighted and intrigued by its science. Further supporting that belief is a piece by Robert Arnould Drais (possible, maker) ca. 1780 in France of The Five Orders of Architecture (pictured below).
Château de VERSAILLES, France
Lapis lazuli columns, mounted in gold; on a base of red porphyry mounted in ormolu
Bequeathed by John Jones
Museum number: 853-1882
Gallery location: Architecture, room 128, case 5, shelf 1
Height 27.8 cm, Length 36 cm base, Depth 15.5 cm
A Grand Design - The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A 14/10/1999-16/01/2000)
A Grand Design (The Baltimore Museum of Art 01/01/1997-31/12/1999)
This miniature representation of the orders of architecture as defined by Vitruvius - Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian - was in William Maskell's, 1883, Jones collection handbook, listed as a court object that was "designed and made for Marie-Antoinette, in order to teach her something of the science."
The piece was listed in the Jones collection inventory, 15 May 1882, alongside furniture supposedly linked to Marie-Antoinette. Though there is no firm documentary evidence, the connections indicate a potential importance attached to it by both the collector and by the Museum.
Whether this information was offered by Jones or his manservant, Arthur Habgood, who inherited Jones's house and who might have assisted curators in compiling the inventory, is not known. However, Versailles curator, Christian Baulez, stated that a reference to a payment made by the goldsmith R.-A. Drais in 1790 for a set of seven lapis columns might have been related to this object.