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Bringing the 200-year-old clockwork boy back to life

By Matthew Ponsford, for CNN and Nick Glass, CNN
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The 200-year-old mechanical boy can write poems and draw pictures
  • Charles Penniman first saw him as a boy
  • Today, he is caretaker for the automaton

Editor's note: Art of Movement is CNN's monthly show exploring the latest innovations in art, culture, science and technology.

Philadelphia, PA (CNN) -- The boy wears an expressionless porcelain face and holds his right arm outstretched.

Standing still, he could be a clothing store dummy. But crank the handle on the box below, and row after row of brass wheels begin to turn.

The 200-year-old boy lowers his pencil to write.

Guardian

The mechanical automaton sits in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA, writing his three poems in intricate, scrolling cursive -- as he has since Charles Penniman first set eyes on him over 75 years ago.

Penniman was six or seven years old then, he remembers, and was instantly transfixed by the way the revolving brass discs made the boy move with fluid, lifelike movements.

Now 85, Penniman is the boy's caretaker, and passes on the mechanism's secrets to the next generation.

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The "Draughtsman-Writer," as the boy is known, is the most complex automaton of its kind.

Clockwork boy

It was created in London in the late 18th Century. But when it arrived at the Franklin Institute, the identity of its inventor was unknown.

Once set to work, the boy told all: "Written by the automaton of Maillardet" says a line traced along the edge of one of his ornamented poems.

Having left the workshop of Henri Maillardet, the famed Swiss clockmaker responsible for the bewildering mechanism inside the boy, the automaton's journey from London to Philadelphia is largely a mystery -- although it is known he toured Europe for a time.

Friendship

Now, at least, it has found a home with Penniman, who speaks fondly of his old friend.

After all these years, the bond is stronger than ever: "The longer I know him, the more respect I have for the mysteries of how he works."

Watch the video above to find out more about Charles Penniman and the clockwork automaton.

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