A man of parts.

Museum cranks up its automaton

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Charles Penniman, a retired Franklin Institute staff educator, with the Maillardet Automaton, which he has long cared for. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)

Talk about writer's block. It had been weeks since he'd managed to get a word down, let alone a drawing. In the past, he'd gone years without pen hitting paper.

But with the Martin Scorsese 3D film adaptation of the children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret about to be released, the Franklin Institute decided last week it was time to trot out the guy at the center of it all.

No, not award-winning author Brian Selznick, who was busy in New York promoting the movie as well as his new book, Wonderstruck, a similarly hefty text-plus-drawings creation.

And no, not Andy Baron, the award-winning pop-up book engineer and mechanical restoration whiz from Santa Fe, N.M., who helped Selznick with details and whose brain seems to have rubbed off on the fictional boy Hugo along the way.

No, the ruminative gentleman they trotted out for a star turn on a rainy afternoon near the famous Heart was the Maillardet Automaton, a 200-year-old writing and drawing mechanical man that seems to have one foot in fiction and another in real life.

Actually, he has no feet at all. And his brains are in a desk.

But when Hugo opens on Wednesday, an automaton not unlike the one at the Franklin Institute will be at its center, although a prop company had to create 15 of them while trying to capture facial expressions that could build a more human relationship between the machine and the boy. (The Mona Lisa was a model.) "It might get a computer assist here or there," Selznick said of the movie version.

The Maillardet Automaton - which the Franklin acquired in 1928 from the estate of John Penn Brock and which can write three poems and make elaborate sketches - got its assist from Selznick, who set in motion a real-life plot not unlike that of his book.

Selznick learned about it while writing The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the story of a boy in Paris who unlocks a mystery by repairing a stolen, fire-damaged automaton and watching as it draws a cryptic picture and signs a name - the identity of the man who made it.

At the time, the Franklin's automaton was in storage in a basement, cared for by Charles Penniman, a retired staff educator at the institute who is now 83.

Like the one in Selznick's imagination, its history included a fire, severe damage, and a series of repair efforts. "I was very surprised to discover the Maillardet Automaton had itself lived through very similar circumstances," he said.

Enter Andy Baron, the mechanical savant who helped Selznick with details of how the automaton would draw and write, from the brass disk controls - cams - that hold the memory to the metal wrist that holds the pen. ("A cascade of perfect movements, with hundreds of brilliantly calibrated actions," Selznick wrote.)

Baron had never seen one in person at that point, but he was able to anticipate its every movement. Ultimately, he was able to repair it, much as Hugo fixes the one in the book. He charged his usual $65 an hour; it took 70 hours.

"What started out as some help with writing this little passage in the book about what happened inside the machine after it was wound up, I ended up becoming a historical and technical consultant for the manuscript," said Baron, who turned down Selznick's initial offer of compensation. He was acknowledged in the book, but not consulted for the movie.

Baron made suggestions that ended up in the book: The clocks in the train station where the orphaned Hugo lives in hiding should be weight driven, not electric; Hugo would be more likely to use needle-nose pliers than a screwdriver.

He suggested that Hugo turn on a light switch and that it not work due to a bit of absent-mindedness about changing lightbulbs, which he felt fit both personalities. "I do relate to Hugo," Baron acknowledged.

In another tweak of a scene in which Hugo goes from clock to clock in the train station to keep them working, "I suggested to Brian that, no, he's not going to run off quickly to the next one. He's going to pause, tilt his head to one side and listen for an even beat. Until he was satisfied that the clock was running, he's going to listen for an even beat. Brian added that detail."

Having done his book tinkering, Baron began the real-life parallel of fixing the Philadelphia automaton. He wrote a 20-plus-page report and spent scores of hours on repairs in early 2008, fixing a "shoulder impingement" and other issues with the head and neck, which now move with restored elegance. He believes the eyes, which move up and down, once also moved side to side and wants to fix that. (The movie automaton's eyes are painted black like a puppet's and do not move - that would be too creepy, Selznick ruled.)

As he did with Hugo, Baron began to identify with the automaton, and he notes wryly that he experienced his own "shoulder impingement" at the time. "It healed rapidly thereafter," he said.

With the movie's release imminent, the Franklin Institute's automaton, at the center of its Amazing Machine exhibit, is being cranked for some rare demonstrations later this week. (Alas, The Muppets are using the IMAX theater, so other than two private screenings, no Hugo 3D synergy).

Last week, Penniman, who first saw the automaton as a child, showed a half-dozen educators how to crank it up and gently lift the little lever to start the guy writing, which he did with his usual thoughtfulness and practiced flourish. Like Hugo and his automaton, this one has a touching relationship with a human.

"It's amazing to watch Charles around the automaton," Selznick said. "It's really like they are old friends. He's known the automaton his whole life."

Controlled by a series of disk-like cams contained in the desk in front of him, the mechanical man begins writing and drawing. In elaborate script, he writes three poems, two in French and one in English, and draws intricate pictures: of a sailing ship, cupids, and a Chinese temple (with a man smoking something mood-enhancing at the top, Penniman helpfully pointed out.)

He looks up and stares out at various times while writing, as though pondering the next brilliantly scripted word to come through his pen. Then he signs the name of his creator, just as Selznick imagined in his book, albeit with a different author: "Ecrit par L'Automate de Maillardet."

One thing he doesn't do, however, is make noise.

That surprised the filmmakers, who never visited the Franklin automaton but who called up one day to ask Penniman to record its sound so they could accurately reproduce it for he movie.

"They were going to come over to get a live recording of the sound an automaton makes," Penniman said. "I suggested if they wanted a sound of an automaton, they should get a synthesizer to make a sound to suit themselves. Once it's greased, it makes no sound."

So that is what they did. In the movie, Selznick said, the automaton "makes so many beautiful sounds. The way the pieces begin to click and whirr and hum. The sounds in the movie are beautiful and very present."

And, of course, a fantasy.


See the Franklin Institute's Maillardet Automaton in action at www.philly.com/hugo


The Automaton, Up Close

The Maillardet Automaton will be demonstrated at the Franklin Institute, 20th and the Parkway, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday; and 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 215-448-1254 or visit www2.fi.edu.


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2672 or arosenberg@philynews.com.