This 200-Year-Old Jeweled Caterpillar Crawls Using Clockwork


If you’re into vintage technology, you might have heard of Maillardet’s automaton. Built around 1800, the two-foot-high, self-operating doll can write and draw, thanks to a series of hidden spring motors.

Nearly destroyed in a fire, the figurine—which is also known as the Draughtsman-Writer, or Maelzel's Juvenile Artist—was acquired and restored by Philadelphia's Franklin Institute in 1928. It later became part of the institute’s Amazing Machine permanent exhibit. Over the years, the famous toy helped inspire Brian Selznick's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was later adapted into the Martin Scorsese film Hugo. It also helped cement the legacy of its maker, a Swiss watchmaker and mechanician named Henri Maillardet.

While Maillardet is most famous for his namesake automaton, he also created lesser-known—yet equally incredible—machines. In 1810, he designed a priceless moving silkworm. Fashioned from gold and enamel and encrusted with pearls, diamonds, and rubies, the 7-centimeter figurine wriggles and writhes like a real insect thanks to a nifty inner clockwork mechanism.

In 1811, Maillardet showcased the silkworm at a joint exhibition of automata co-hosted with famed watchmaker Jaquet Droz. There, the object was nicknamed the “Ethiopian Caterpillar”—a marketing ploy to draw curious visitors to the event. (Maillardet also displayed other figurines with exotic-sounding names, including the “Egyptian Lizard” and the “Siberian Mouse.”) Later, members of the Chinese Imperial Court are said to have owned the expensive plaything.

Maillardet reportedly made several other jewel-encrusted silkworms, which currently sit in the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva, the Maurice Sandoz collection of watches, and in private collections. In 2013, Sotheby’s sold one of Maillardet's remaining caterpillar automatons at auction—meaning you missed your chance to purchase it for the well-heeled entomomaniac in your life. However, you can watch one of the worms inch its way across a table in the above video. The elite auction house will also soon host an auction of important watches that includes a steam boiler industrial clock automaton. These aren't just whimsical conversation pieces—they also remind us how surprisingly sophisticated technology could be 200 years ago.

All images courtesy of Sotheby's.

[h/t Daily Mail]