It is June 1775, 240 years ago almost to the day. Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, the son of Pierre Jaquet-Droz, completes a journey that had lasted several weeks. It had taken him from La Chaux-de-Fonds to Versailles. In his heavily-laden coach there were a number of horological treasures, but much more besides: the craftsman had taken his three mechanical children with him, his famous automata. They were destined for a unique and much-envied presentation, to the French monarch himself : King Louis XVI.

The three Jaquet-Droz automata. © Delos Communications

The watchmaking wizard who avoided being burned at the stake
Although such a high-level presentation was not customary of the Jaquet-Droz family, it was no exception either. Pierre and Henri-Louis laid the foundations for the international watch trade. They presented their creations to King Ferdinand VI of Spain on two occasions, but also to the inner court of imperial China, which was accessible to such an elite group that it became known as the “Forbidden City”.

The Jaquet-Droz therefore new the customs of royalty well. Nevertheless, Louis XVI had one particular request: to be able to examine the mechanisms of the different automata after the presentation.

This is not as anodyne as it may seem. When he was in Spain, Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s presentation of his automata caused such a stir that he was accused of witchcraft! He avoided being burned at the stake by lifting the veil – literally – on the mechanical heart of his automata. He did the same with Louis XVI, probably with fewer reservations.

Information technology and robotics in the court of Louis XVI
With the benefit of hindsight, it is interesting to note that the construction of these automata was itself quite special: all the animated miniature figurines that had be produced until that time by a myriad of craftsmen had always had their movement hidden inside the object, either in a false bottom or some type of hidden compartment.

Before the three Jaquet-Droz androids, the mechanisms of automata were often hidden in false bottoms. Private collection of the Jaquet-Droz Museum, La Chaux-de-Fonds. © Delos Communications

Pierre Jaquet-Droz was one of the first to conceive an automaton whose mechanics were the body, and vice versa. To this extent, he was the father of modern robotics, where the final shape (a human body for a humanoid, for example) is the starting point to determine the function and thus the location of the motors to power it. But this presentation in June 1775 was set to open many other doors as well.

Because when we talk today of programming, androids, roadshows and marketing, we immediately think of the 20th and 21st centuries. But these are concepts that were employed by the Jaquet-Droz family long before the words even existed.

The Jaquet-Droz family was one of the first to put the mechanisms of their automata into the body itself. This arrangement is still used today. © Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Neuchâtel

New millennium, same applications
Programming? The automata presented to Louis XVI 240 years ago were able to respond, on demand, to a given order based on a pre-existing logical path – nowadays this is called programming. The most obvious example is the Draughtsman, one of the three Jaquet-Droz automata. This mechanical object that takes the form of a man – in the strict sense, therefore, an android – could draw multiple designs thanks to its system of cams.

One anecdote makes the story even more interesting: while it was customary to draw the monarch to whom the automata was being presented, in June 1775 the Draughtsman drew a dog instead of Louis XVI, writing the caption “Mon toutou” (“my doggie”) underneath it! Possibly one of the first examples of a “bug” in programming.

“Mon Toutou”, the first bug in the history of programming! © Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Neuchâtel

The brand today, as part of the Swatch Group, distances itself from such bugs. But it still uses the same idea of a roadshow, unveiling its pieces in tribute to this mechanical tradition at international exhibitions: Charming Bird, Bird Repeater and, most recently, the Lady 8 Flower.

The Charming Bird, presented this year at Baselworld, is a worthy heir to the tradition of singing birds from the 18th century. © Jaquet Droz

Only the marketing has changed: while Pierre Jaquet-Droz used his automata as talking pieces to show his customers (the royal courts) without ever selling them, the brand today offers very limited editions of its pocket automata as worthy representatives of a centuries-old tradition.