was the kind of kid who loved to take my toys apart to see how they worked. Once I’d learned the purpose of each part, I would carefully put my toys back together just as the manufacturer intended. Then I would get curious and take them apart again, and figure out other ways to arrange the parts to see if I could make them do different things.
As I grew up I developed a fascination with antique machines. I had always loved antique cars and remember sitting in a darkened movie theater when I was six years old, excited and captivated by the opening scene of the automobile race in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. At age 12, I began to acquire antique machines that nobody wanted and taught myself how to work on them. There was always something to notice about the beauty and appropriateness of the engineering and aesthetics, which made modern machines unappealing. Over the next 30 years or so, I repaired and restored everything from old clocks and wind-up phonographs to typewriters, cash registers, music boxes, vintage radios and, yes, antique cars. Some of these were for myself, but many were for other enthusiasts and collectors. The Library of Congress approached me when they wanted a particular 1890s cylinder phonograph to transcribe early recordings, and the Edison museum in Fort Myers, Florida referred consulting and repair work to me.
When I became a “Paper Engineer” in the mid 1990s, I applied much of what I had learned about machines to the art of creating pop-up books, and soon became known as someone who could create complex and innovative paper mechanics.
On November 9, 2005 I received an email from Brian Selznick, a friend of my pop-up collaborator Paul O. Zelinsky. At that time Brian was actively creating what would soon become the award-winning book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Brian wrote:
“I'm a fan of your paper engineering, and Paul has told me how your talents extend beyond the world of the pop up book. I am working on a book that features an automaton, and while doing my research I came across an automaton at the Franklin Institute.
They were looking to find a genius to fix the automaton, and Paul said you might just be the man. If you think this is the kind of project you would be interested in working on, I'll contact the folks at the Franklin Institute and put you both in touch with each other. It's an amazing machine and I would love to see it working again.”
Paul also mentioned to Brian that I might be helpful in explaining how the automaton’s mechanism works, which could be useful to the research that Brian was doing for his book. And so we began a dialogue.
Brian had been granted a private showing of the automaton, although it had been broken for some years. John Alviti, the Franklin Institute’s Senior Curator of Collections, and Charles Penniman, the automaton’s caretaker and exhibitor, demonstrated the distressed machine to the limited extent that it could be run. They allowed Brian to take photos and video clips, which he then emailed to me so that I might develop an understanding of its mechanical details.
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