Le Confident

Ideas tête-à-tête

Musical Androids

During our stay in Paris, I was reading a book about electronic music, which startlingly began its development in the 17th century. There Athanasius Kircher wrote about a mechanical, algorithmically composing machine and Václav Prokop Divis invented the first electrified piano (next to a grounded lightning rod some years before Benjamin Franklin).

While these were scientific tentatives, back then there existed an aristocratic market for curiosities, for which also musical automates were created. Some of them looked like living people and amused before all the french rokokko court of the time. Now it were not musical ideas that inspired the constructors of this early musical robots, and no science fiction dreams of a better, more steadfast form of intelligence, like we know them from the 20th century, but an astounding mimicry of human capabilities. There are before all two names to be mentioned: Jacques de Vaucanson, whose works can be seen in the “musée des arts et métiers” in Paris and the family Jaquet-Droz, who is nowadays known for high-end watches.

Whatever their goal and motivation, there craftsmanship is breathtaking, these things that imitate some essential aspects of life and human behavior, where built by hand, without any digital construction aid and without wide ranging theories of mind, composition or even mechanics.

Vaucanson is known mainly for a mechanical duck, that imitated the natural process of digestion for its nobel audience. He has also created a flute player, that really breaths into his instrument, and therefore really plays preprogrammed tunes.


Pierre Jaquet-Droz is known for puppet like humanoids, who write, draw and play the piano live. Especially “la musicienne” astounded her audience, as she looks like a likable young girl, playing the piano music while following the notes in the partition before her. These inventions can be seen in Neufchâtel, Switzerland.


The links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Václav_Prokop_Diviš – first electric instrument

http://www.mahn.ch/collections-arts-appliques-automates Jaquet-Droz

http://www.musicologie.org/Biographies/v/vaucanson.html Jacques de Vaucanson, french


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This entry was posted on July 8, 2012 by in Design, Music.
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