Franklin Institute Automaton ready for his Oscar

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If you've been to the Franklin Institute in the past few days, you would have found its automaton all duded up in something new - a tuxedo.

Turns out the little fellow thinks he's going to the Oscars this weekend, and, in a way, he is.

Martin Scorsese's Hugo - based on the children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick - has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards. What some fans of the movie might not know is that when Selznick was writing his book, his research led him to the Franklin Institute.

Selznick didn't get the initial idea of writing about an automaton from visiting the Franklin's 200-year-old mechanical lad. But when he came to Philadelphia to see it, some startling coincidences surfaced between the real automaton and the one formed in Selznick's imagination: both once sat still in disrepair and had to be brought back to life, both were damaged in a fire. And both revealed something important about themselves when they stirred.

The automaton's maker was thought to be Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, a German engineer who invented the metronome and made primitive hearing aids for Beethoven.

But when the Franklin Institute's automaton - brought to the museum in 1928 - was able to write again, he declared his provenance:

“Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet’’ — “Written by Maillardet’s Automaton.’’

Here's some video of him in action. More here.

Something surprising happens when you watch the automaton making his deft moves - something tingles within us. We may live among iPhones and more sophisticated technology. But when this little statue starts to write, the act still comes across, even today, as a daring marriage of the mechanical and the biological, and seems like nothing less than a miracle.

There should be an award for that.