Hugo Draws Inspiration from Some Old-School Engineering

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Everyone knows Thanksgiving is all about the movies, and this year theaters are offering up three family-friendly films: The Muppets, Arthur Christmas, and Hugo. The Thanksgiving lineup is sure to bring laughs and stunning animation but it also offers moviegoers a little science. The Muppets features the return of Muppet scientists (and CERN employees) Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, while Arthur Christmas is a high-tech take on Santa Claus (so will we see engineer elves?). But what about Hugo, the Martin Scorsese–directed film about an orphan living in a Paris train station in the 1930s? The 3-D adventure offers a glimpse into some engineering history with the help of an automaton. 

Autonomous Automata

Hugo and his father work on the mysterious automaton in the film.Automata are self-operating machines with a long, and strange, history. The machines became popular in the 18th century, but the earliest automaton dates back to 60 AD. Hero, a Greek mathematician and engineer, designed several automata, including a programmable three-wheeled cart. Leonardo da Vinci also dabbled in automata, including a knight robot that could sit, stand, and raise its visor. 

Early automata, like the cart and knight robot, run on a system of pulleys and cables. That system was later replaced with clockwork driven devices. The Silver Swan, designed by John Joseph Merlin in the 18th century, contains three separate clockwork mechanisms. Each mechanism controls a part of the swan’s movement as it turns its head side to side, “sees” a fish in the glass river below, and bends its head to catch and swallow the fish – all while playing music. (Think of it as a larger, more complex music box.)

The Draughtsman-Writer

The Draughtsman-Writer automaton at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA.All this talk of automata but how does this relate to Hugo again? The main character in the film, the orphaned Hugo, is given an old, broken-down automaton by his late father. This particular automaton sits at a desk with a pen in hand, prepared to write. Part of Hugo’s mystery story is what the automaton writes, and how Hugo discovers the key (a literal key) to the automaton’s clockwork.

But over at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA, the mystery of the writing automaton has already been solved. Hugo’s automaton is based on the Draughtsman-Writer, designed by Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet in the 18th century. The automaton arrived at the Franklin Institute badly damaged, possibly from a fire, but an Institute machinist restored the machine to working order. The key that accompanied the automaton fits into the machine base (which holds the clockwork mechanisms) and winds the springs to start the machine. The Draughtsman-Writer writes one of seven elaborate sketches (four drawings and three poems). 

Brian Selznick, the author behind The Invention of Hugo Cabret, from which the film is adapted, has noted that he changed certain aspects of the Draughtsman-Writer automaton for the story. The key in the book and film, for example, are much smaller than the real-life version. You can also see that the film’s automaton is much larger and does not sit on top of the clockwork base. But still, the automaton is the heart of the story (and mystery) in Hugo, and the real-life Draughtsman-Writer is an amazing example of engineering (and physics, as these lesson plans from the Franklin Institute explain).

One more fact about Hugo: The film features an older gentleman who works in the train station’s toy shop. Selznick based this character on Georges Méliès, the filmmaker behind the first science-fiction film, A Trip to the Moon (1902). As it happens, Méliès spent his later years working in a toy store in the Montparnasse station in Paris. He also owned a large collection of automata. All of these facts inspired Selznick to write The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and now you’ll get to see the story (and some old-school engineering) on the big screen.


Image credits:

Top right: Paramount Pictures

Bottom right: Franklin Institute


The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.