Not content for The Writer to simply reproduce the same note time and again Pierre Jaquet-Droz designed the letter-parts to be interchangeable so the device could write whatever its owner fancied. The Writer and other Jaquet-Droz designed automata - the Draughtsman, a mechanical boy which draws a very artful picture of a dog, and The Musician, a young woman who plays a dulcimer-like instrument - are in effect early prototype computers, devices which are programmable, following a prescribed set of well-defined instructions. What's more fascinating are the philosophical questions posed - how Jaquet-Droz's automata or John Joseph Merlin beautiful Silver Swan (1773) transcend their collection of moving parts and assume a strange lifelike, even soulful presence like so many robotic dreamers that followed them - The Wizard of Oz Tin Man, the replicants of Blade Runner (a film which features a character who designs 21st century toy automata) and the child android from Artificial Intelligence.
Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams will no doubt feature on BBC4 again in the near future so if you have the channel (or can access it on the BBC player) and you're interested in medieval curios, and indeed the surrealist films of Jan Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers, I highly recommend you catch it. Better still, Pierre Jaquet-Droz's three surviving automata, which still function are on permanent display at the Museum of Art and History Neuchâtel, in Switzerland while John Joseph Merlin beautiful Silver Swan can be seen a little closer to home at the Bowes Museum Durham, England.