Steampunk (which, I’m sorry, I still think is really cool but hate to admit to because it’s FUCKING EVERYWHERE and I am, apparently, a giant hipster tool who only likes things “before they were popular” and now I have to go shoot myself or drink some PBR to either end or finish the hipster-douche transformation) loves it some clockwork mechs. Hell, slap some gears on something and steampunkers jizz themselves over it.

But if you really want one of the most awesome clockwork pieces of all, you don’t have to go to a convention- you need to go to a museum.

Henri Maillardet was a Swiss watchmaker and mechanician of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. Besides producing more ordinary clocks, Maillardet also made various automata. His most famous set depict magicians, while others could write in French and English as well as draw pictures.1

But while those larger automata are more famous, I don’t think they are nearly as lovely as some of his smaller creations. Of particular note are his delicate, bejeweled caterpillars:

[vimeo 16128282 w=400 h=225]

Created in 1820, the Ethiopian Caterpillar (as Maillardet called it) was first shown at an exhibition of Maillardet’s miniature clockwork robots in London. Only six caterpillars are still known to exist, five of which are in Europe (some at museums, others in private collections).

The 200-year-old clockwork robot is really a marvel. Remember, there’s not a damn thing electronic about it. The little guy is made entirely of clockwork parts… and he’s just so pretty. The caterpillar has 11 jointed ring segments and is studded with studded overall with gold-set rubies, turquoise, emeralds, seed pearls, and diamonds.

Not only were Maillardet’s little caterpillars a wonder of pre-electronic robotics, they are also fucking exquisite. Can’t help but wish some of our (admittedly) more functional modern bots could have half the style and panache of this little clockwork caterpillar.

I mean, come on- you can’t help but be impressed by this. Good show, Maillardet, my old bean.

1 An amusing little anecdote about these latter automatons: One was given to the Franklin Institute in 1928, but no one knew who created it. When the automaton was restored to working order, however, it told them itself by writing “written by the automaton of Maillardet”. Good job, clockwork robot. Good job.

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