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18th-Century Automata Lives On in Jaquet Droz’s Signing Machine [Video]

The customizable mechanical device can sign signatures and write messages in any language.

The Swiss watchmaker Jaquet Droz specializes in what it calls “the art of mechanical astonishment.” To witness its new Signing Machine in action is to understand exactly how appropriate that catchphrase is.

Four years in the making, the machine—which belongs to a class of mechanical devices known as automata, fanciful creations that operate according to predetermined sets of instructions—can replicate a personalized signature, unlocked by a four-digit code. Crank it up using a lever on the side of the machine, and stand back as it writes a signature on paper in a fluid, consistent stroke, seemingly of its own volition.

Jaquet Droz Signing Machine

Jaquet Droz Signing Machine 

Introduced at the recent Baselworld fair in Switzerland as part of Jaquet Droz’s 280th anniversary collection, the device pays homage to the singular expertise of Pierre Jaquet Droz, a clockmaker in La Chaux-de-Fonds who founded the firm in 1738. Twenty years later, he traveled to Spain, where he sold six clocks to King Ferdinand VI. Upon his return to Switzerland, he used the money from that sale to focus on his true passion: creating automata. With the help of his adoptive son, Jean-Frédéric Leschot, Jaquet Droz’s production grew increasingly sophisticated.

His three most famous automata—the Writer, the Draughtsman, and the Musician, all currently on display at the Neuchâtel Museum of Art and History in Switzerland—have been described as distant cousins of the modern computer because of their programmable actions. First shown in 1774, they were displayed across Europe, where viewers marveled at what these early humanoid robots made of carved wood could do.

The Writer, for example, could write on paper; after dipping a goose-feather quill into an ink pot, the boy was able to follow the movement of his arm with his eyes. The mechanical draughtsman, on the other hand, was capable of drawing four distinct images, including a portrait of Louis XVI and a Cupid driving a chariot drawn by a butterfly.


Imitating the living and creating emotion was “what Jaquet Droz historically sought to achieve through his technical and artisanal expertise in the arena of automata,” says Jaquet Droz CEO Christian Lattmann.

Jaquet Droz Signing Machine

Jaquet Droz Signing Machine 

The company, which was acquired by the Swatch Group shortly after 2000, is currently taking orders for the Signing Machine, whose stainless-steel case can be rendered in gold and hand-engraved upon request. It takes three months to program the device with a custom signature or personal message in your language of choice. Pricing begins at $367,500.


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