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15th–17th Century
18th Century
19th Century




Ancient automata



The Greeks had very advanced engineering skills and most certainly managed to make partially animated statues. They were probably worked by levers and powered by human action, although there are descriptions of using steam and water as a source of power. Automata in the Hellenistic world were intended as toys, religious idols to impress worshipers, or tools for demonstrating basic scientific principles, including those built by Hero of Alexandria (sometimes known as Heron). When his writings on hydraulics, pneumatics and mechanics were translated into Latin in the sixteenth century, Hero’s readers initiated reconstruction of his machines, which included a syringe, a fire engine, a water organ, and the aeolipile, a rocket-like reaction engine and the first recorded steam engine. Complex mechanical devices are known to have existed in ancient Greece, though the only surviving example is the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient mechanical calculator (also described as the first known mechanical computer) designed to calculate astronomical positions. Originally it was thought to have come from Rhodes, where there was apparently a tradition of mechanical engineering. However, information gleaned from recent scans of the fragments indicate that it may have come from the colonies of Corinth in Sicily and implies a connection with Archimedes.

Antikythera mechanism

Fragment of the Antikythera mechanism.

Descriptions of wonderful mechanical people and objects came out of other cultures too. There seems to have been a common ambition to emulate living things throughout the whole of the ancient world. The following is a description of some of the more intriguing ones.

Amenhotep made a statue of Memnon, King of Ethiopia, near Thebes in Egypt, which uttered a melodious sound when struck by the the suns rays in the morning and during sunset.

Ctesibius was an inventor and mathematician in Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt. He experimented with natural pressures of air and pneumatic principles which he applied to automata, making what was described as ‘contrivances and amusing things of many kinds that have been found to be pleasing to the eye and the ear’. Ctesibius' most notable automaton was a blackbird that sang by means of waterworks, and figures that drank and moved. Ctesibius is probably the founder of what we now think of as modern-day automata, objects that please or amuse us; certainly the first forms of kinetic art.

Archytas of Tarentum made a wooden pigeon suspended from the end of a pivot which was rotated by a jet of water or steam. The pigeon simulated flight. Archytas is the alleged inventor of the screw and the pulley.

Philon of Byzantium took the principals of pneumatics used by the Egyptians to power many of his mechanical devices. He was also interested in steam and is reputed to have introduced its use as a means of producing motion.

In ancient China, a curious account on automata is found in the Lie Zi text, written in the 3rd century BC. Within it there is a description of a much earlier encounter between King Mu of Zhou (1023-957 BC) and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi, an 'artificer'. The latter proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical 'handiwork':

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. As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yan Shih executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial...The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted.

King-shu of China had a flying magpie constructed out of wood and bamboo. He also had a wooden horse worked by springs.

The South Pointing Chariot is widely regarded as one of the most complex geared mechanisms of the ancient Chinese civilization. It dates back to 2600 BC. The chariot consisted of a figure that always pointed south, regardless of the direction it was heading. It was considered to be a pioneering navigation device used by the Chinese to explore and travel through the Gobi desert. The addition of drums, which would sound with each revolution of the wheels, meant they could also measure distance.

the South Pointing Chariot

A reconstruction of the South Pointing Chariot.

Clockwork mechanisms from China helped begin the Japanese Karakuri tradition. More on this later.

In the 8th century, the Arabic alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), included recipes in his Book of Stones for constructing artificial snakes, scorpions and humans, which would be subject to their creator's control. In 827, Caliph al-Mamun had a silver and golden tree, which had the features of an automatic machine, in his palace in Baghdad. There were metal birds that sang automatically on the swinging branches of this tree built by Muslim inventors and engineers of the time. The Abbasid Caliph al-Muktadir also had a golden tree in his palace in Baghdad, in 915, with birds on it flapping their wings and singing. In the 9th century, the Banu Musa brothers invented an automatic flute player which appears to have been the first programmable machine, and which they described in their Book of Ingenious Devices.


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