Robot Myths and Origins

We think of robots as being a very modern, even futuristic invention, but the ideas behind them date back thousands of years. .

The word ‘Robot’ was coined by Karel Capek in his 1920 play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ in which automata were built to replace humans in boring or dangerous work. The word is derived from the Russian word ‘robota’, to work, and in South Africa means an automated traffic light

The search for automated labour seems to run parallel with empire building over many centuries. When people move to cities and are involved in more specialised work, such as government, the military and education, this causes a shortage of agricultural labour which is often heavy and repetitive. The Egyptians and Greeks dealt with this by inventing machines such as the Archimedian screw for irrigation and lifting machines. The technology involved from simple cogs and levers mechanics developed ever more complicated machines. Their inventions were often based on what they saw in nature, especially in humans as they were known to work.

About 3,000 years BC, the Pharoahs of Egypt were being buried with their slave servants who were killed to ensure their service in the afterlife. In the following centuries, human slaves were replaced with statuettes or ‘shabti’, which in turn evolved into moving statues or ‘ushebti’ which performed a number of set tasks in response to a magical incantation. These non humans had immense appeal as they were completely obedient, never ran away and never tired.

By around 1,000 BC the Greeks had absorbed these ideas and their epics included tales of intelligent machines created to serve their gods. In the Iliad, Hephaestos forged humanoid females who replaced humans serving the Gods their food. He also created the bronze sentry which was deactivated when Medea drained it of oil which flowed in veins similar to human blood, so it was a human-machine hybrid, a notion which technicians are still striving towards. They claimed to have built a wooden bird that flew, a parallel with the legend of Daedalus. In the 3rd century BC Ctesibius invented a water clock whose accuracy was not improved on in Europe until the 14th century.

Western Europe lost much of this knowledge when the Roman Empire fell, and for centuries scientific development was often opposed by the Roman church, as shown by the treatment of Galileo and others. But following the Reformation, European science advanced, largely based on the complex technology of clocks, which were used to tell when religious services occurred, and they increasingly included complicated moving figures. These figures became popular as entertainments for aristocrats who were the only people who could afford such time consuming hand made creations.. This technology was used to produce birdsongs in grottoes, automated music and even moving figures and firing guns as table centre pieces at grand feasts..

France in particular became a major centre for detailed craftsmanship. Jacques de Vaucanson began by producing lifelike angels, and by 1738 he was touring with two lifelike humans with intricately designed fingers and lips who played music, and even a duck which was said to digest food and then produce waste, though this latter was a trick. He became famous across Europe and also invented industrial weaving machines. His success as a showman also inspired other travelling shows such as magicians and figures that could write and draw according to set programmes. One of these, by Henri Maillardet made a figure that wrote ‘written by the automaton of Maillardet’ which later allowed it to be established as his work.

Hungarian Wolfgang von Kempelen produced a chess player, claimed was a toy for Empress Maria Theresa Called ‘The Turk’ due to its Middle Eastern garb, it appeared to think and beat many of the greatest players, so became immensely famous when it toured Europe in the mid 18th century, and was seen as the heir to Vaucanson’s duck. . The Turk was eventually exposed as a fraud; a human sat inside operating the mechanism.

E.T.A. Hoffman was the most widely read German author of the 19th century, and widely credited as the father of gothic literature, which was a response to the perceived dehumanisation of the industrial age. . His stories were praised by Mary Shelley of ‘Frankenstein’ fame, and Edgar Allen Poe. The ballet ‘Coppelia’ involving a beautiful automata was based on his story and his ‘The Sandman’, was inspired by the Chess Player, so not only was mythology influencing automata, but the reverse was also feeding into notions of horror that it inspired.

In Asia, the great educators, Jesuit missionaries, are claimed to have introduced automata into China in the 17th century, but the region had tales of mechanical men many centuries earlier. In Japan it seems that automata were inspired by a mechanical puppet theatre in 17th century Osaka. By the end of the 18th century Japan was producing self propelled weight driven humanoids which interacted with humans to serve tea, showing the modern Japanese passion for robotics is of long standing and apparently also inspired by mythology..

Over the 19th century, these intricate and expensive creations inspired more simple mass produced toys, shop displays but the skills were also diverted into industry and military inventions, but progress was hampered by lack of portable energy source. Early automata were powered by clockwork in the pedestals they stood on. Steam engines were heavy and needed constant maintenance. Early batteries were heavy and bulky, so it was not until the mid 20th century when technology caught up with the fiction writers and engineers and modern automata, or robots became a reality.



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