In this two-part series of articles, we are going to explore how robots came to be through some of the most interesting inventions, which laid the foundations for our modern technology – with Robo Wunderkind in it. Why do we need robots? How do robots work? These are questions we might see clearer if we look at the timeline of the history of robots. This first part is about the initial mechanical automatons in Greek mythology, the Chinese inventions, Leonardo da Vinci’s robot and more.
The first mentions of robots or automatic machines can be found as early as the ancient Greek mythology. Haephaestus, the god of blacksmiths created three-legged servants that were capable of moving around, as well as Talos, a bronze creature that defended Crete from enemies. The golems in Jewish culture, made of clay, are another example of “machines” capable of moving by themselves, although being created out of inert matter. Besides, we can find evidence of automatic machines in Indian or Christian legends.
Many ancient Chinese inventions can be considered robots as well. Such as the life-sized human-like figure of Yan Shi, that he presented to the king himself. It was made out of leather, wood, and artificial organs. Fast forward 2000 years and you find yourself in the 11th century, AD. This is when Su Song, a renowned Chinese engineer built a 10 meter tall clock tower, that featured mannequins announcing the time on plaques or by hitting gongs. His tower was later disassembled by occupying forces, but they were unable to rebuild it. It is assumed, that he left out essential parts of the plan on purpose.
Later on, Leonardo da Vinci created drawings of a humanoid robot, likely based on his anatomical research of the human body in the Vitruvian Man. We don’t know for sure whether he also built the mechanical knight, but since discovering the notes it has been constructed according to his notes and – just for the record – it works well mechanically. The knight was capable of sitting and standing, in addition to moving his arms and legs.
The industrial revolution sparked hatred for machines and even today we look at robots in awe. We need to prepare ourselves and the younger generation for what may come in the future of automation. People in the 18th century failed to do so, but before that revelation struck them, they were fascinated by what automatic mechanisms had to offer. Jacques de Vaucanson, a Frenchman created several robots, including a flute player, that actually blew air and used its fingers to make music. Still, his most notable and famous invention was “The Digesting Duck”, that ate from its operator’s hand, could then “digest” the food and relieve itself. The input, as well as the output, were actually stored in different containers and the duck just created the illusion of digestion.
Japan nowadays is notorious for the advancement of robotics, but a lesser-known fact is, that in the 19th century the “Japanese Edison”, so-called Hisashige Tanaka created several complex mechanical toys, that could serve tea or paint. These are called karakuri, and they have been around in simpler forms from the 17th century. Their main purpose was decoration and entertainment, through their unique gestures.
As you might see, people need robots to defend cities, know the time or just enjoy themselves. Besides, automation helps us to ease the workload in certain professions. All these simple, or more complex mechanisms paved the way for today’s robot technology, that is ever more developed. While earlier, electrical circuits were not incorporated, today’s robots couldn’t exist without them. That’s what is to come in the second part of The History of Robots: we are going to look at the modern robots, so stay tuned to learn how we arrived to automated machinery in manufacturing, medicine, or education.