Robots before 1900 – must be a wind-up! – The Automaton

Sometimes, realising that what seems new is actually old can be surprising and fascinating. Take robots as an example. They are now at an advanced stage compared to 10 years ago and that speed of development is increasing. But the concept of a robot as a device that is engineered to serve a duty, construct something or purely entertain is very old. The Automaton is a term often used to describe these historical objects.

Few examples of automatons made prior to the 16th century remain, but numerous documents record their onetime existence. Among the earliest references is to a wooden model of a pigeon constructed by Archytas of Tarentum (flourished 400–350 BCE), a Greek friend of Plato. The bird was apparently suspended from the end of a pivoted bar, and the whole apparatus revolved by means of a jet of steam or compressed air. More complete information about other devices is found in the writings of Heron of Alexandria (flourished 1st century CE), who described devices actuated by water, falling weights, and steam.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Arabic polymath Al-Jazari designed and built some of the Islamic Golden Age’s most astounding mechanical creations. According to his “Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,” published in 1206, he also designed a water-powered automaton orchestra that could float on a lake and provide music during parties. The contraption included a four-piece band—a harpist, a flautist and two drummers—accompanied by a crew of mechanical oarsman who “rowed” the musicians around the lake. The waterborne orchestra operated via a rotating drum with pegs that triggered levers to produce different sounds, and other elements allowed the musicians and crewmen to make realistic body movements. Since the pegs on the rotating drum system could be replaced to create different songs, some have argued Al-Jazari’s robot band was one of history’s first programmable computers.

Syria: Automated musical band, from al Jazari’s ‘Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices’. Photo: Pictures from History/UIG

In the early 16th century there was renewed interest in the manufacture of automatons, largely stemming from the influence of Eastern examples brought to Europe through trade with the Orient and the translation from the ancient Greek of the 1st-century-CE writings on mechanical objects by Heron of Alexandria.

Among the more elaborate mechanical devices popularized in the 18th century were tableaux mécaniques, or mechanical pictures. These framed painted landscapes, in which figures, windmills, and so forth spring to life by means of hidden clockwork, remained popular through the 19th century. A tableau designed for Mme de Pompadour (1759; Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, Paris) is a prime example of this type of automaton. Closely related to the tableaux mécaniques are mechanical theatres, the most extravagant of these having been built in the gardens of Hellbrunn, near Salzburg, Austria. Consisting of 113 hydraulically operated figures, it was assembled between 1748 and 1752.

With the exception of a few works by Peter Carl Fabergé (died 1920), the production of costly artistic automatons virtually ceased in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because of the diminishing number of skilled craftsmen as well as rich patrons to support them.

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