The Artificial Man: You’ll never guess how old Robotics is!

automatonHow long do you think people have been creating robots? Fifty years? A hundred? Certainly the Victorian automatons could be considered as precursors of robots.

Given that one of the characters of Ghosts of Tsavo is an automaton, I was curious about the history of such devices.

Was I in for a surprise: I had no idea how old the interest in robotics was.

In antiquity, there were myths, stories and rumours of artificial, intelligent beings created by master craftsmen. Outside of mythology, there were in fact automata in various countries, including ancient Greece. These automata were generally powered by water: for example, the first cuckoo clock ever made used water to sound a whistle and make a model owl move.

More complex devices also existed, including the Antikythera Mechanism, the earliest known analogue computer (circa 150BC); it was designed to calculate the positions of astronomical objects. IBM and Apple had to start somewhere, right?!

Even earlier than that, there is a description from ancient China of a life-size, mechanical humanoid made by Yan Shi and presented to King Mu of Zhou (circa 1000BC):

The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time.

The interest in these primitive robots continued into the Middle Ages. Emperor Theophilos had numerous examples in his palace in Constantinople (949AD), such as bronze lions that moved their tails and roared, and bronze birds that sang.

Wind powered statues were constructed in the mid 700s in the palace of Baghdad.

Going a step further, Al-Jazari constructed programmable humanoid musicians in 1206AD, using a programmable drum machine with pegs that bumped into little levers to operate the devices. According to Charles B Fowler, this robot band had:

more than fifty facial and body actions during each musical selection.

RobotIn case you might think these were just the toys of aristocracy, Al-Jazari also designed a hand-washing automaton with a flush mechanism that is now utilised in modern flush toilets. And in the 1600s, the ever-complex mechanical toys created prototypes for the engines of the Industrial Revolution.

While all this doesn’t change my story, it does make me appreciate the history of effort that led up to my automaton.

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