10 Historical Robots

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.

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


  • Dead Media Archive of New York University. "Euphonia Speaking Machine." (July 22, 2014) http://cultureandcommunication.org/deadmedia/index.php/Euphonia_Speaking_Machine
  • Davis, Lauren. "The Rather Creepy 19th-Century Machine that Spoke with a Human Voice." I09. Jul. 13, 2013. (July 22, 2014) http://io9.com/the-slightly-creepy-19th-century-machine-that-spoke-wit-768557068
  • Fallon, Sean. "Da Vinci's Mechanical Lion Brought to Life After 500 Years." Gizmodo. Aug. 17, 2009. (July 22, 2014) http://gizmodo.com/5339039/da-vincis-mechanical-lion-brought-to-life-after-500-years
  • Jacobs, Emma. "America's Firs Celebrity Robot is Staging a Comeback." NPR. Apr. 2, 2012. (July 22, 2014) http://www.npr.org/2012/04/02/149850779/americas-first-celebrity-robot-is-staging-a-comeback?
  • Kooser, Amanda. "Elektro: 1939 Smoking Robot Saved from Oblivion." CNET. Apr. 5, 2012. (July 22, 2014) http://www.cnet.com/news/elektro-1939-smoking-robot-saved-from-oblivion/
  • Hisksey, Daven. "The First Robot, Created in 400 BCE, Was a Steam-Powered Pigeon." MentalFloss. Nov. 14, 2012. (July 22, 2014) http://mentalfloss.com/article/13083/first-robot-created-400-bce-was-steam-powered-pigeon
  • Huffman, Carl. "Archytas." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2011. (July 22, 2014) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/archytas/
  • Hutton, Charles. "A Philosophical and Mathematical Dictionary." S. Hamilton. 1815. (July 21, 2014)
  • Lo Bello, Nino. "After 200 Years, Trio of Mechanized Dolls Can Still Amaze Audiences." Chicago Tribune. 1985. (July 22, 2014) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-06-30/travel/8502120275_1_dolls-17th-century-trio
  • Narumi, Sato. "The Dolls that Sparked Japan's Love of Robots: 'Karakuri Ningyo.'" Jul. 31, 2012. (July 22, 2014) http://www.nippon.com/en/views/b00907/
  • New World Encyclopedia. "Regiomontanus." 2007. (July 22, 2014) http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Regiomontanus
  • Nocks, Lisa. "The Robot: The Life Story of a Technology." Greenwood Press. 2007. (July 21, 2014)
  • Riskin, Jessica. "The Defecating Duck, or, The Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life." Critical Inquiry. 2003. (July 22, 2014) http://web.stanford.edu/dept/HPST/DefecatingDuck.pdf
  • Shirbon, Estelle. "Da Vinci's Lion Prowls Again After 500 Years." Reuters. Aug. 14, 2009. (July 21, 2014) http://in.reuters.com/article/2009/08/14/us-france-davinci-lion-idINTRE57D1MQ20090814
  • Tarantola, Andrew. "Japan's First Robots are Older than You Think." Gizmodo. Oct. 13, 2011. (July 23, 2014) http://gizmodo.com/5849242/japans-first-robots-are-older-than-you-think
  • Voskul, Adelheid. "Androids in the Enlightenment: Mechanics, Artisans and Cultures of the Self." University of Chicago Press. 2013. (July 21, 2014)
  • Wood, Gaby. "Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life." The Guardian. Feb. 15, 2002. (July 22, 2014) http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/feb/16/extract.gabywood


'AntBot' Uses Celestial Navigation Instead of GPS

'AntBot' Uses Celestial Navigation Instead of GPS

How is a robot like an ant? HowStuffWorks looks at the new technology.

More to Explore