The Ethiopian Caterpillar
Thought to date back as far as 1820, this incredible pre-electronic mechanical robot was made by Swiss watchmaker Henri Maillardet for sale to aristocratic Chinese buyers. The rare gold, enamel, jewel and pearl-set automaton mimics the gracious undulating caterpillar’s crawl with a clockwork powered mechanism which drives a pair of gilt-metal knurled wheels.
The body is realistically designed to represent a caterpillar comprising eleven jointed ring segments, framed by seed pearls, and decorated with translucent red enamel over an engine-turned ground, studded overall with gold-set rubies, turquoise, emeralds,and diamonds. The underside is decorated with champlevé black enamel. When the automaton movement is engaged, the caterpillar crawls realistically, its body moving up and down simulating the undulations of a caterpillar by means of a set of gilt-metal knurled wheels. The automata work is composed of a barrel, cam and two leavers all working together to create the crawling motion.
Born 1745, Maillardet was a Swiss mechanician who worked in London producing clocks and other mechanisms, including various automata, including a famous set depicting magicians and others which could write in French and English. When one was presented to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in 1928 it was of unknown origin; but once restored to working order, the robot itself provided the answer by penning the words ‘written by the automaton of Maillardet’.
You can watch a video of the caterpillar in action here.