10 Historical Robots


Some historical representations of robots are silly, but there are many examples of automata from the past that are no joke. © SSPL/Getty Images

Fortunately, a robot uprising hasn't usurped human control of planet Earth ... yet. But considering how far these machines have come along in recent decades, their eventual supremacy may be just a matter of time.

If in some dark future we are all enslaved by machines, it could be because of the work done by curious humans hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

We tend to think of robots and automata (self-operating machines) as relatively recent technologies. But old-school scientists from the 1700's -- and even much, much earlier -- were crafting complex machines with all sorts of useful (or just weird) capabilities long before Furby hit toy stores across the land.

They set the stage for a world that's now populated by more than a million robots. That includes industrial robots performing complex and laborious tasks, as well as those that zoom around your home cleaning dog fur and cracker crumbs off of your carpet.

Robots explore other planets for us. Armed drones fight in the skies. They even assist surgeons by cutting into us during operations requiring great precision.

All of those technologies have origins in devices that appeared long before your lifetime. Keep reading and you'll see just how far back robot technology -- and maybe even find out who Robocop's great-great grandfather is.

10
The Jaquet-Droz Trio
The writer, musician and draughtsman ©Rama, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license

When you imagine technology from two centuries ago, you may think about musket balls and wind-driven ships. But in 1774, Swiss clockmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his sons Henri-Louis and Jean-Frederic Leschot completed three insanely intricate automata.

The three automatons were called the writer, the draughtsman and the musician. All three used systems of cogs and wheels to perform their duties.

The writer can write custom sentences in fancy script. The doll actually dips a quill into an inkwell, shakes off the excess ink and then completes the commanded text in excellent handwriting.

The draughtsman (actually a child) makes four different drawings, such as a dog. He blows dust off of his work periodically.

The musician is a female figure that took nearly 10 years to complete and has 5,000 internal parts. She plays 45-second songs, actually moving keys on a clavichord with her fingers. Her chest rises and falls to mimic breathing, her eyes follow her fingers and she bows after each song.

You can still see all three pieces on display (and in occasional working performances) in Switzerland at a museum in Neuchatel.

9
A Dandy Digesting Duck
A diagram of the Vaucanson duck’s inner workings © Bettmann/Corbis

In 1738, French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson unveiled his masterpiece automaton. No, it wasn't a tambourine player or a flutist, both of which he'd created in earlier years. It was a duck. One that ate grain from a hand ... and then promptly pooped.

The digesting duck was no toy. It had more than 400 moving parts in each wing. It could stretch, bend its neck, lie down, drink water and eat grain. Then, after a few moments, it would defecate.

Vaucanson led people to believe that the digestion process was realistic, but in reality, a compartment in the duck was preloaded with poo before each demonstration. When the truth came out, a minor stink erupted.

Nevertheless, his gold-plated copper duck was a substantial scientific and mechanical work. Sadly, the duck disappeared at some point, never to be seen again.

8
Archytas of Tarentum's Mechanical Bird
Archytas, inventor of the first known automaton © Ken Welsh/Design Pics/Corbis

To get back to the first known automaton, we have to go all the way back to Greece in 350 B.C.E., and read about Archytas of Tarentum and his mechanical dove.

Archytas was a brilliant man with a keen mind for math, astronomy, politics and other disciplines. Some historians consider him a founder of mechanical engineering.

Concrete evidence is scarce, but it seems that Archytas used his knowledge to fabricate a wooden dove (which may actually have been a pigeon) that could fly hundreds of feet into the air while tethered to the ground.

It likely worked because of either compressed air or steam. Some speculate that the dove worked via a pulley and counterweight system to hop from a lower to a higher perch.

Regardless, the legend of Archytas's technological prowess and his wooden dove have survived for centuries.

7
Da Vinci's Mechanical Lion
It isn’t surprising that da Vinci, known for both his studies of anatomy and his mechanical creations, would have turned his hand to creating an automaton. © Alinari Archives/CORBIS

In the early 1500s, near the end of his life, Leonardo Da Vinci was commissioned to create an automaton for King Francois I. The multi-talented Renaissance man didn't disappoint.

He built a mechanical lion with the ability to walk. Upon reaching its destination, a compartment in the fully automatic lion's chest opened, revealing a fleur-de-lis (a stylized lily) in honor of the French monarchy.

Unsurprisingly, the lion was lost or destroyed at some point in history. In 2009, though, another mechanical tinkerer named Renato Boaretto drew inspiration from Da Vinci's lion and made his own version, which walked, swayed its tail, moved its jaws and, of course, had a secret compartment that opened to reveal a fleur-de-lis.

6
Elektro
Yep, Elekro could even smoke cigarettes. © Bettmann/CORBIS

If you could imagine a robot built by a 1950s appliance company, you'd probably conjure a machine like Elektro. It was a shiny metallic biped that became one of the first celebrity robots.

Elektro was built by Westinghouse to show off the company's technological prowess. In 1939, Elektro went on display at the World's Fair in New York, where he was a fabulously popular attraction. Like a seasoned stage comedian, he blew up balloons, told jokes and smoked cigarettes. He also moved his arms and walked, and his photoelectric eyes detected the difference between red and green.

With the onset of World War II, the public fascination with Elektro faded and he wound up discarded in a basement. Eventually, he was found and rebuilt. He made a cameo appearance in the movie "Sex Kittens Go to College" and even went on national tour. He's now on display in Mansfield Memorial Museum in Ohio.

5
The Artificial Eagle
To make a mechanical version of a bird that could fly to a target, issue a greeting and then serve as escort, you’d definitely need some genius in the mix. © Dgwildlife/iStockphoto

In the mid-1400's, Johannes Müller von Königsberg (known widely by his Latin pseudonym Regiomontanus) was tearing things up, intellectually speaking, in his home country of Germany. He exhibited a high degree of intelligence in astrology, writing, astronomy and math, and he put it to use in his work on trigonometry and astronomical tables. Oh, and in building an automaton.

As with so many historical accounts, exact details of Regiomontanus's work are sparse. But as the story goes, he built a mechanical eagle that flew towards an approaching emperor, greeted him and then accompanied him as he entered the city.

It's easy to see why a ruler would be impressed by such a display. And the contraption helped to ensure that Regiomontanus would become known as one of the fathers of robotics.

4
The Flutist
A drawing of three of Vaucanson’s works. The flute-player is on the left, another human-like automaton is on the right, and the famous pooping duck is in the middle. National Library of France

In addition to his defecating duck, Jacques de Vaucanson made a number of other automatons, including a flute player that wowed onlookers. He supposedly first imagined the flutist while in the delirious grips of serious illness.

The wooden flutist, which was painted white to resemble a marble statue, was remarkable because at more than 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, it was lifelike in size and shape. And it didn't just play one tune – it knew a whopping 12 separate pieces of music.

Clock-like mechanisms inside the body moved a series of nine bellows. The bellows forced air through the device's "lips" and into the flute. The mouth and tongue changed position, as did the fingers, to create many different tones in the instrument.

3
Euphonia
We can’t see why people weren’t utterly charmed by a half-woman whispering to them in a creepy voice. © Illustrated London News/Getty Images

Imagine, if you will, a disembodied, mechanical head speaking to you in a monotonous and eerie voice. No, it's not the customer service line of your wireless carrier – it was Euphonia, a so-called talking machine built by Joseph Faber in the mid 1800's.

Faber researched the anatomy of human speech and fabricated mechanical parts after them. Then he assembled a machine consisting of bellows, pedals, chambers and even an artificial glottis. The operator used 16 keys corresponding to consonants and vowels, and in the proper hands it could recreate any European language in whisper, conversational voice or song.

It seems that people were a little creeped out by this robotic talking woman – or perhaps by Faber, too, who was reported to be an eccentric. Although not many people flocked to see his creation, Faber's Euphonia influenced technology of the day and may have helped inspire the telephone.

2
Karakuri Ningyo
Many of the inner workings of these dolls are skillfully hidden with beautiful clothing. Photo by World Imaging, used under Creative Commons 2.0 license

The Edo period in Japan lasted from around 1600 to nearly 1900, and it was a good time for arts, culture and, yes, automatons. During this period, karakuri ningyo (basically meaning mechanized dolls) were born.

The dolls varied in their sophistication and capabilities. In one example, placing a cup of tea on a tray in the doll's hands caused it to walk and then bow. Another doll was able to grip arrows and then fire them at a target using a bow. Still another could do handsprings down a staircase.

All of them work thanks to internal clockwork gears and mechanisms. They were built mostly for entertainment. But it's easy to see how they've influenced Japan's modern-day obsession with robotics and technology.

1
The Hot Air of a Steam Man
What’s the deal with smoking robots? In this case, the cigar is a clever way to vent the steam that powers the mechanical man. © Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

In the late 1890s, reports surfaced regarding a steam-powered man that could walk 5 miles per hour over rough land. The inventor was George Moore, a professor who hailed from Canada.

A breathless account in the New York Times indicated that a gas-powered boiler was tucked away inside the smoke-belching robot, generating about half a horsepower to drive the iron man forward. Attached to a post by a horizontal bar, the man could walk rapidly in circles.

Amusingly, there are no verified accounts supporting the steam man's existence. He may have been a complete fabrication that spun out of control, perpetuated by lazy or incompetent reporting.

Whether the steam man existed is irrelevant. It's still true that many inventors and tinkerers managed to cobble together robots and automatons in the early days of technology. They did so by trial and error and without engineering software or YouTube videos to guide their efforts. That makes their efforts all the more notable and earns their works of art and mechanics a permanent place in robotics history.

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Author's Note: 10 Historical Robots

Many of the robots of pop culture's 20th-century imagination simply haven't come to fruition. Forget maids that vacuum, mop and dust like those in the cartoons and sci-fi movies -- engineers are still struggling to make a two-legged robot navigate a room without causing a mess. In the air, though, robots are finding their feet. Drones of every size and shape are filling the skies for purposes both peaceful and nefarious. So although the robot revolution may have taken centuries to lift off, it's gaining momentum.

Related Articles

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