Robert Houdin rigged automatons and androids

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(Introduction of the "Singing lesson" a charming automaton by Robert-houdin).

These extracts are coming from the film "The Jaquet-Droz androids".
This film and many others about automatons and anroids
are available in english version on our online shop.

Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin
A document by Jean-Luc MULLER
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, mechanical clockmaker, magician and inventor, was born in Blois on 6, December 1805 and died in Saint Gervais near Blois on 13, June 1871. He is viewed as the greatest conjuror and magician of all time. Almost all the current "big magic tricks"come from his improving findings.

The outstanding creator was also a great automaton maker and he presented his work pieces in his "Soirées Fantastiques" at the Palais Royal.

He was additionally a great inventor: for instance, we have him—long before Edison—to thank for the invention of
the electric bulb with vegetal filament in 1863 as well as electric plastrons for fencers, automatic doors, milometers and machines allowing ophtalmologists to scrutinize the eye ground.

The public's mysterious fascination with the automatons of Vaucanson, Jaquet-Droz, Maillardet and of so many other famous artisans was to encourage illusionnists to additionally present automatons in their shows sooner or later.

Although Robert Houdin created genuine automatons which worked through sophisticated clockwork or other mechanisms, he took to the creation of rigged automatons working with the help of strings pulled by invisible hands or a human being hidden inside a mannequin or under a table.

Rigged automaton at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
Rigged Automaton at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin : "Enigma the singing bust" Flash animation
By the end of the 18th century, some automaton masters adopted the pedal system. In his posthumous work devoted to "magic and amusing physics", Robert-Houdin described his systems of movement : "The pedal is made up of three steel wires, two of which are fixed and form a cage from a mechanical point of view, the third is mobile and can be raised above the two others by pulling the string. The spring below is designed to draw the stem back to its original place when pushing the string."

"When many of these pedals are aligned one against each other, they form a so-called set of pedals. Suppose a 10-pedal set, all the 10 strings would move to the right and to the left through the table's feet resting on pulleys. They would then be steered under the theater scene to eventually come to a keyboard where they would be sorted out according to the table order."

"When the stems are raised above the table, they meet the corresponding pedals which are placed inside the machine base and help move the arm,the head or any other part of the automat or the machine."
Here are some following descriptions of Robert Houdin's main automatons:
Robert-Houdin and behind him his android writer - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
Robert-Houdin and behind him
his android writer
Document by Jean-Luc Muller

The writer-draughtsman an automaton by Robert-Houdin - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The writer-draughtsman by Robert-Houdin
Document by André Keime-Robert-Houdin
The writer and draughtsman :In his "Mémoires" Robert Houdin said that he had designed an automaton on which he had placed great hopes, actually a writer-draughtsman which answered the audience's questions with proper sentences or emblematic drawings.

At the 1844 trade fair Robert-Houdin presented his mechanical writer and won a silver medal.

Barnum, who bought the automaton from Robert Houdin at this exhibition said: "I paid out this ingenious automaton which was both a writer and an artist. It was sitting at a table and had a pencil in its hands. If it was asked a symbol of fidelity for example, it immediately drew a beautiful dog. And when asked the symbol of love, it drew a delightful Cupid. The automaton also used to write down the answers to many other questions."

On this subject Chapuis and Gelis said in their book "Le monde des automates"(The automaton's world) : "From these different details we notice that Robert-Houdin who mentionned Vaucanson and other automaton makers did not mention at all Jaquet-Droz, Leschot or Henri Maillardet in his"Mémoires".
Moreover, eighteen months were physically not enough for a man on his own to make this android. (report to the section about the android creation in the "Mémoires"). We shall therefore remember that it took the Jaquet-Droz brothers six years to achieve their automaton.

Finally, it was a strange coincidence that the drawings made by Houdin's automaton (The Cupid, the monarch's crowned head, the dog) were partly the same as those made by the Jaquet-Drozes'draughtsman as well as their second copy bought by Henri Maillardet.

Everything leads us to believe that this android burnt down among the Great Barnum's collections in a devastating fire in 1865 in New-york.
The garde française an automaton by Robert-Houdin - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The Garde française by Robert-Houdin
Document by André Keime-Robert-Houdin
Le Garde-française : Robert-Houdin said about this pedal automaton: "A small automaton wearing a French Guards-like uniform was brought on a table: he was carrying a musket in a shoulders- arms position, ready to obey a command.

As a well-mannered automaton, it first respectfully greeted the audience. Then he got rid of its gun and with its right hand, blew kisses to the young children it saw in the auditorium.
I borrowed four rings and a white glove from a few ladies in the audience. Then I rolled them all into a small ball and put it into the small musket which I had first loaded and primed.

"Here you are", I told my Garde-Française, "here is your gun containing a glove and four rings. Now show me how skillfull you are and send all these objects to its target", pointing at a cristal column on another table.

"The automaton took aim at the target, put its finger on the trigger, and fired when I gave the signal. The objects inside the gun were thrown out to the column. The glove, swollen as if it were worn by an invisile hand, stood on the top of the cristal column. The fingers wore each ring that had been entrusted to me. "

The confectioner of the Palais Royal, an automaton by Robert-Houdin - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The confectioner of the Palais Royal
by Robert-Houdin
Document by André Keime-Robert-Houdin
The confectioner of the Palais Royal :"Look at this charming little automaton!When his master calls, it comes to the threshold of his door and —as both a polite provider and a skillfull confectioner— greets its customers and waits for their orders. As soon as the members of the audience order hot brioches coming out of the oven, all sorts of cakes, syrups, liqueurs, ice-creams...and so on, it bring them and when everyone's wish is fulfilled, it helps its master with his conjuring tricks."

This automaton,both famous and mysterious, was activated by a young boy who sat cross-legged at the back of the shop. Above the door and the windows there was an empty space, a kind of attic, to bear the cakes and beverages that the child put on a plate handed by the confectioner. This was made possible through a trap door installed in the ceiling of the shop when the doors were closed.

From the left window, the confectioners in the shop could be seen rolling the pastry and crushing almonds. They were moving according to a winded up clockwork controlled by the opening and closing of the main doors. When those doors would open the workers would stopp and would start work again only after the doors closed. The movement of the other characters, —the confectioner and his wife— the opening and closing of the doors were activated by the child who remained invisible to the public.

The fantastic orange tree, an automaton by Robert-Houdin - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The fantastic orange tree, by Robert-Houdin
Document by André Keime-Robert-Houdin
The fantastic orange tree : Robert-Houdin borrowed a handkerchief from a lady in the audience, rolled it into a ball which he put besides an egg, a lemon and an orange. Each of those four objects disappeared into the others and once they were all gathered together in the orange, this one was used to make a magic liqueur. In order to do this, Robert-Houdin pressed the orange between his hands and its size decreased to a powder which was then put into a small bottle filled with wine spirit.
Then someone brought the orange tree without flowers or fruits. Some of the magic and flammable liqueur was poured into a vase which was then put on the tree after fire had been set to it. One could see the branches blooming, then succeedingly loading with fruits which were shared between the members of the audience, except a single orange. It was left on the tree and it opened into four parts showing the handkerchief. Two butterflies took it by its ends and unfurled it while fluttering high in the air.

This piece of work was controlled by pedals. Genuine oranges were driven in points and remained hidden by the foliage which spread open at the required moment to make them visible. The flowers were concealed in small tubes where they bloomingly appeared from with the help of a pedal. The final orange, a metallic one, spread open in four parts mounted on hinges. As soon as the orange opened, two artificial butterflies mounted on invisible steel wires were thrown in the air giving every appearance of flighting.
Antonio Diavolo, an automaton by Robert-Houdin - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
Antonio Diavolo by Robert-houdin
Document by André Keime-Robert-Houdin
Antonio Diavolo, the acrobat: in his"Mémoires", Robert-Houdin said : "I carried my artist of wood in my arms, as I would have done with a human being. Then, I put it on the stick of a trapeze and I asked it a few questions which it answered by moving its head. "Aren't you afraid of falling?"
It shaked its head from right to left.
"Are you ready to perform your exercises?"
It nodded.
"At the first bars of the orchestra, it gracefully greeted the audience, bending downwards to every different part of the auditorium. Then, hanging by the arms and following the bars, it got pushed in an extremely strong way. "

"Then it had a rest and smoked a pipe. Thereafter it performed amazing feats on the trapeze such as raising itself on its arms or doing a headstand while performing quick movements with its feet. "

"In order to demonstrate that it was a whole mechanism by itself,my little Diavolo got rid of the rope,hung by the feet to finally get down from the trapeze."
Explanation note provided with the automaton made by Robert-Houdin - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
Explanation note provided with the automaton
Document of the Blois Library
This figure was made possible by pulleys and pedals. From the left wing a set of eight threads went through pulleys mounted above the scenes, succeedingly on other pulleys placed on the top of the apparently trapeze's ropes —actually hollow tubes—joining both ends of the trapeze's stick which was hollow too. Two sets of pulleys mounted on these two ends led the threads back to the stick's center where they activated a set of six
small, very short pedals working at the stick's height where the automaton put its hands.

In the wings the pulley system was stopped by rings hanging in hooks,preventing them from moving at certain times or by bobbins pulled by hands. Two additional big threads came from a large pulley mounted on the left, on the front and at the back of the trapeze's stick, enabled the movement of the automaton which succeedingly involved the gradual swing of the trapeze due to its shifting from its centre of gravity.

Inside the automaton's arms and hands a series of control levers was mounted and pressed by the pedals out the trapeze's stick. So the movements could be transferred to the different parts of the automaton's body: shaking of the head, somersault around the armpits,hanging by the back of the knees—and not by the feet,according to Robert-Houdin's says— release of the hands when the automaton was doing a headstand, hanging by the back of the knees, balancing on the hands, as well as the grip on the trapeze's stick as soon as the automaton was put on it and the final release of the automaton's body when falling into the hands of the conjurer.
Photo from the film "Robert-Houdin, une vie de magicien" - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
Photo from the film "Une vie de magicien"
(The magician's life)

Document by Jean-Luc Muller
All this was made possible by pedals and control levers: development of the movements inside the body through differential movements. Only the trapeze's swing resulted from the sheer stick's rolling which involved the automaton's movement. A most ingenious and sophisticated mechanism, prevented the threads to get twisted and stuck when the trapeze was turning.
A very ingenious trick enabled Diavolo to release its hands when hanging by the back of the knees: Two flat tubes put into its arms contained the levers'stems and those tubes were fixed on the trapeze. Only two false arms (opened on one side) released while the tubes remained stuck to the body. As those tubes were coated with red velvet like the automaton's jacket, they were invisible.

Moreover the exercise was vigorously and very rapidly performed as the arms came quickly back to their normal position when the automaton sat back on the trapeze. It was such amazing when it dropped the trapeze and opened its arms that the audience had no time to notice that the arms were hollow.
The singing lesson, an automaton made by Robert-Houdin - The website of automatons, automata and androids.
The singing lesson by Robert-Houdin
Photo from the Paul Dupuis Museum/Toulouse
The singing lesson : Robert-Houdin created various genuine automatons based on the topic of a singing lesson taught by a young lady to a bird.

At the Paul Dupuis Museum in Toulouse there is still a singing lesson presented on the left of this page.

As usual in every singing lesson, a young lady lets a bird on a perch hear a tune which it repeats while moving in all directions.

But after a few notes the young lady interrupts the bird and turns the handle so it can hear the tune again. The second time the bird performs the right tune.

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