The evolution of robotics ranges from Greek philosopher Aristotle’s concepts about automated mechanisms, all the way through to Henry Ford’s Model T assembly line and further. We’re still away seeing robots of such depicted in movies for instance, Ex Machina (or even “I, Robot”), but the area of robotics and AI is constantly developing with new discoveries being reached continuously. Here’s a refresher on some of the most significant monuments in the advancement of robotics up until day.
This is a voyage through the long history of robots, from the 4th Century BC to these days. Robots have amazed and busied human thoughts for centuries — from ancient myths of stone golems, to modern-day science fiction. Though the term “robot” was only officially written in 1921 by Karel Čapek, humanity has striven to design autonomous machines since as distant as the 4th Century BCE.
Nowadays, robots are largely used across a range of industries, assisting in the production of vehicles and much more. As indicating by the International Federation of Robotics, in 2015 there were as many as 1.63 million industrial robots operative worldwide, and this number keeps to grow steadily every year. This is a brief background of how robotics have emerged and progressed from the early conceptions of 400 BCE, to the worldwide resource they are right now.
THE ANCIENT ROBOTS: ARCHYTAS’ PIGEON, CTESIBIUS’ CLEPSYDRA, AND FURTHER
But it had not been just the ancient Greeks and Romans who were experimenting with robotics. There are records of robots from ancient China, such as a sentence in Lie Zi from the 3rd Century BCE which illustrates a singing and dancing robot that performed for King Mu of Zhou. Basing on the text, the robot was engineered by an inventor named Yen Shih from wood and leather.
Ancient Chinese Automata
In 250 BCE, Ctesibius designed a clepsydra, or hydro clock, featuring a variety of sophisticated automatons. Though water clocks had resided in use for centuries at that point all around the world, it was during this time frame that Greek and Roman innovators began to improve the basic models of the clocks with elements such as bells, gongs, and moving figurines. Ctesibius’ design enabled the releasing of peddles into a noisy gong, effectively turning it into the very first alarm clock along with an example of very early automaton design.
The very first origins of robotics can be recorded back to Ancient Greece. Aristotle was among the first great philosophers to take into consideration automated tools, and how these resources would impact society at large. It was in 400 BCE that the very first automaton was created by Archytas of Tarentum, who is today regarded as the ancestor of mathematical mechanics. Archytas’ Pigeon was a steam-powered self-governing flying machine. Its wooden construction was built upon the anatomy of a pigeon, and consisted of an airtight boiler for the generation of steam. The steam’s compression would eventually surpass the resistance of the structure, enabling the robotic bird to fly.
The steam-powered pigeon of Archytas
11TH CENTURY TO THE 15TH CENTURY: HUMANOID ROBOT AND DA VINCI’S KNIGHT
Progression of self-governing systems continued well into the 11th Century and beyond all throughout the globe. Among the most significant inventors during this time span was Ismail al-Jazari, an engineer and mathematician from the golden era of Islam.
Al-Jazari is attributed with the conception of segment gears and is believed by many being the ancestor of robotics. Many of his automated creations were powered by water, and consisted of all things from automatic doors to a humanoid sovereign waitress who could refill drinks.
Al-Jazari’s influence is especially evident in the in the future work of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1495 the widely known Italian artist and painter created an autonomous knight, which showcased a series of pulleys and gears that enabled it to move its arms and jaw, and also sit up. The humanoid robot was updated in many ways by da Vinci’s own study on human anatomy, and was supposedly put to use as entertainment at parties by da Vinci’s patron, Lodovico Sforza.
16TH CENTURY TO THE 18TH CENTURY: FLYING ROBOTS AND MUSICAL AUTOMATONS
One exceptional machine from the 19th Century which most certainly was not a scam, however, was the Euphonia — a speaking, singing robot which was run through an early form of text-to-speech technology. Euphonia was created by Austrian mathematician and inventor, Joseph Faber. The mechanism featured a humanoid feminine face linked to a keyboard, where the face’s lips, jaw, and tongue could be managed. A bellows and ivory reed ensured the machine’s voice, and pitch and accent could be changed through a screw in the face’s nose.
Euphonia was the end result of 25 years of work for Faber, and debuted to crowds in 1846. Unfortunately, Victorian viewers were too unsettled by the machine’s empty stare and creepy, whispered voice and the device vanished into obscurity.
One creation of those time was named “iron eagle”, designed by German mathematician Johannes Müller von Königsberg, AKA Regiomontanus. Not a lot is found out about the building and construction of Regiomontanus’ eagle, aside from the fact that it was crafted from wood and iron sometime in the 1530s. In 1708 author John Wilkins wrote an statement of the robot eagle, stating it had flown to greet the Prussian emperor and came back to Regiomontanus. Von Königsberg is also attributed as having designed a robotic fly which was also capable of flying.
The production of robots which were primarily designed for entertainment reasons became ever more popular between the 16th and 18th centuries. Although these automatons were made to entertain, it’s important not to address their designs frivolously. Much of the innovations used in these devices led the way for more complex machines later.
THE 19TH CENTURY: CHESS-PLAYING MACHINES AND EARLY EXPERIMENTATION’S WITH SPEECH
The 19th Century witnessed the success of automatons as touring attractions and oddities, which would entice and inspire crowds all around the world. A popular sort of automaton at this time was the chess-playing robot.
The most popular of these creations was The Turk, created by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the 1770s and which globe-trotted until 1854. Though it seemed like though The Turk could play chess, the gadget was revealed being a fraud that was controlled by a chess player hid within its box.
In spite of the sophisticated maneuver of The Turk, and the related accessories which appeared in its place, the central conceit gave the inspiration for true chess-playing machines which would debut in the early 20th Century.
Another major figure of this time in the creation of entertaining and industrial machines was Jacques de Vaucanson. In 1737 Vaucanson constructed The Flute Player — a life-sized humanoid automaton that could play up to 12 different songs on the flute. The robot used a set of bellows to “breathe”, and had a moving mouth and tongue that could vary the airflow, allowing it to play the instrument.
Vaucanson’s most remarkable achievement, however, was his Digesting Duck. The duck was famous not only for being an entertaining device that seemed to eat and poop, but also as it is often considered the first machine to use rubber tubing.
THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY: EL AJEDRECISTA, ERIC, AND GAKUTENSOKU
Although The Turk was disclosed as a deception, the early 20th Century witnessed the development of the first authentic chess-playing robots. Constructed in 1912 by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, El Ajedrecista (directly translated as “The Chess Player”) was the 1st real chess-playing robot and is considered by some as being a predecessor to video games. The device was capable of performing an endgame against a human opponent, and came with an electrical circuit and an unit of magnets which positioned the pieces. It debuted at the 1914 World’s Fair in Paris to fantastic excitement and praise.
1928 saw the creation of the inaugural British robot, named Eric. Eric was designed by engineer Alan Reffell and World War I veteran Captain William Richards. Maneuvered by two people, the robot could well move its head and arms and could converse by using a live radio signal. Its motions were regulated by a set of gears, ropes, and pulleys and the robot reportedly spewed sparks from its mouth. As a tribute to the Čapek’s 1921 play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti — where the phrase “robot” was first officially formulated — Eric had the letters R.U.R. engraved into its chest.
“Eric” The Robot
The upcoming year saw the release of the pioneer Japanese robot — Gakutensoku. Installed 1929 by biologist Makoto Nishimura, Gakutensoku was above seven feet (2.1 meters) tall and could transform its facial expressions as a result of the activity of gears and springs in its head. Gakutensoku’s biggest success, however, was its capability to write Chinese characters. Unfortunately, the robot went on missing whilst on tour in Germany