By this time John had reviewed my work, from my pop-up résumé (where these connections began), to workshop photos and before-and-after views of antique cars I had restored. As John noted, the museum was also interested in restoring their 1929 RCA theremin, the first manufactured electronic musical instrument. I already had experience with this type of instrument, and had made one in my workshop. Theirs hadn’t worked since some time prior to 1951.
I arrived at The Franklin Institute on my 45th birthday, March 31st, 2007, and was introduced to John Alviti and Charles Penniman, and to Maillardet’s automaton. The details of the automaton restoration are another story and best understood by reading my comprehensive restoration report.
The restoration was aided by a set of clear, close-up photos that Charles made for me in the days prior to my trip. I remember studying them like flash cards during my flight to Philadelphia. Charles had also observed an impingement in the automaton’s shoulder, which he knew was causing other issues, and pointed this out to me. This was one problem of many, in several different areas that needed attention. My original report, prepared for The Franklin’s files, had two dozen detailed repair entries, in addition to various other observations and summaries.
The restoration detail I’m most proud of is that I was able to restore the graceful, life-like movement of the automaton’s head and eyes, as though the moving figure is thoughtfully engaged in its own act of creation. Although the automaton had seen prior and major restoration efforts between 1871 and 1981, this elegant movement that imparts so much character was lost for more than a century and hadn’t been seen by any living person.
On November 4th, 2007, Brian Selznick returned to The Franklin for a historic event. Brian presented an engaging slide show about the making of his now-famous The Invention of Hugo Cabret, followed by a book-signing and the public unveiling of the newly restored automaton. Everyone was there – Paul O. Zelinsky, John, Charles, Brian, me, and of course the Maillardet automaton, which performed flawlessly on this occasion in front of a large audience, drawing a tall-masted British warship with billowing sails and flying banners, complex rigging, cannons in the ports and waves on the ocean.
The RCA theremin at the Franklin is once again in good working order, and this type of instrument is the subject of a website that I co-created with my theremin colleague Mike Buffington, RCATheremin.com. Maillardet’s automaton is enjoying a tremendous rebirth of attention by visitors from around the world, who want to see the automaton that inspired Brian Selznick’s book, and the movie HUGO.
In my imagination, the automaton is reveling in the glory and fanfare of its first days of public exhibition, when its metal parts were bright and new, in the dawn of that faraway day in the distant past.
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illustration by Aaron Boyd