Course Handout - A Brief History of Automata

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First published online 08:30 BST 10th June 2003, Copyright Derek J. Smith (Chartered Engineer). This version [HT.1 - transfer of copyright] dated 18:00 14th January 2010


Although this paper is reasonably self-contained, it is best read as a subordinate file to Part 4 of our seven-part review of how successfully the psychological study of biological short-term memory (STM) has incorporated the full range of concepts and metaphors available to it from the computing industry. To go directly to the superordinate content file, click here, to go to the superordinate menu file, click here, and to see the author's homepage, click here.



The modern robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) industries use technology which is typically less than a hundred years old, and yet what they are trying to achieve cannot properly be understood without delving much more deeply into history. Two thousand years ago, for example, automata were reputedly already capable of rudimentary synthetic sound, and legends of metal men and statues coming to life can be found in the works of Homer, Plato, Pindar, Tacitus, and Pliny. This field has already been repeatedly reviewed by authors such as Cohen (1966), Ash (1977), Aleksander and Burnett (1983), Pratt (1987), Mazlish (1993), Lindsay (1997), Franklin (2000), and Wood (2002), and here are some of the key points again:

         Artificial Life: For the ancient Israelites, the first man was made by Jehovah using "the dust of the ground", whilst for the Greeks he was fashioned by Prometheus and Athena out of clay. This is a similar tale to that of the golem, an obscure Semitic myth from Old Testament times, which resurfaced in 16th century Prague when Rabbi Low reputedly created a 9-foot tall golem to protect the Jewish community from harassment. Unfortunately, the creatures in such legends were not always friendly, prompting cautionary tales such as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein - A Modern Prometheus" (1818).

         Living Statues: Ash (1977) dates the concept of the living statue to the classical Greek myths, specifically to Talos, a metal man built for King Minos to help defend the shores of Crete against invasion. The myth of Pygmalion is also worth noting, for it tells of a confirmed misogynist who sculpted his ideal woman in marble and then promptly fell in love with her (luckily for him, the Gods smiled on his dilemma and brought the statue to life as Galatea, and they lived happily ever after). The idea of loving that which we ourselves have painstakingly sculpted (be that literally or figuratively) was replayed in modern times by Henry Higgins and Eliza Dolittle in George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" (1916), and (given a happy ending) in the musical/film "My Fair Lady" (1956/1964). The story is played out for children in such works as Carlo Collodi's "Pinocchio" (1883).

         Talking Heads: Talking heads were either statuary busts or mummified skulls, and were reputed to utter prophecies (presumably by voice tube or ventriloquism), or to nod or shake their heads when questioned (presumably being worked surreptitiously like puppets). Heyl (1964/2003 online) assures us that both the head of the Jackal God and the bust of Re-Harmakhis have hidden speaking tubes leading to their mouths, and Spence (1915) adds that "every roguery of priestcraft" was practised in Egyptian temples. More impressive still must have been the Colossi of Memnon, a pair of 18-metre high statues guarding the approaches to the Mortuary Temple of the Pharaoh Amenhetep III at Thebes [picture]. They were erected in the mid 14th century BCE, and during an earthquake in 27CE the northern statue was damaged in such a way that its structure started to "sing" with the dawning of each new day. This went on for over 200 years, and, being one of the marvels of the world, attracted many influential visitors, including the Emperor Hadrian in 130CE. The phenomenon ceased abruptly when masons eventually effected repairs to the structure. One theory is that Hero of Alexandria (see next) conspired with the temple priests to install yet another voice tube, and Hippolytus's "The Refutation of All Heresies" mentions the use of "the windpipe of a crane or some such long-necked animal" in such deceptions [source].

         Automata: Hero (sometimes Heron) of Alexandria (dates uncertain, but around mid-first century CE) was an accomplished Greek engineer who made many automata - articulated and internally complex models - discretely powered by water, gravity, air, or steam, and capable of simple movements and sounds, and with these he entertained and astounded those who could afford his services. During the European Dark Ages, this sort of knowledge was kept alive in the Arab world, reappearing a thousand years later in such works as Al Jaziri's "The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices" (ca. 1206), and then re-entering an increasingly curious Christian world as alchemy (see next). Automata have also appeared in literature, and the idea of falling in love with a machine was explored in Ernst Hoffman's gothic short story "Der Sandman" (1817) in which the love object is the android Olympia [picture], in Delibes' ballet "Coppelia" (1870) where it is the eponymous dancing doll [picture], and in countless recent science fiction novels.

         Alchemists and Androids: The modern university movement began with the establishment of universities at Bologna (1088), Salamanca (1218), Padua (1222), Oxford (1249), and Cambridge (1284). The curricula at these new institutions was initially theology and philosophy, but gradually grew more secular as monks and scholars began to study the Middle Eastern texts to find out what they had been missing out on during the Dark Ages. This led to them adopting the Arabic name al-kimia - anglicised as alchemy - to describe the practical study of the forces of nature, and two of the alchemists' favourite topics were the creation of gold and the mystery of (eternal) life. The key to the former was the Philosopher's Stone, and the key to the latter was twofold, firstly the search for the Elixir of Life and secondly the study of automata. In fact, the Middle Ages recognised no boundary between what we would today call science and what we would today call sorcery, and nowhere is the ambivalence better seen than in the Dominican Friar Albertus Magnus, world authority in his time on such sciences as physics, astronomy, and biology. Tutor of the young Thomas Aquinas in 1243, Albertus became Regent of Studies of the Dominican Order in Cologne in 1248, and during the next 30 years wrote books on just about every subject under the sun. He also spent his spare time building a speaking automaton. Unfortunately, there are light and dark reports of everything Albertus did, and not least of the story of his automaton. On the one hand, we have the orthodox Catholic Encyclopaedia version of the tale, which tells how Albertus built only a relatively innocent animated doll, capable of artificial phonation; not much more than a clever musical instrument, in other words, and an entirely harmless amusement. On the other hand, there is a darker version of the story, in which he communed with "angels from the underworld" and used "materials unknown to this world" to build a speaking, thinking, android, complete with a soul. Even the name of the mysterious automaton changes from account to account, being Barbiton in some and Android in others. However, both versions of the story more or less agree that Aquinas entered Albertus's workshop one day on an unannounced visit, and was so surprised at being spoken to by a doll that he decided it must be Satanic, and smashed it to pieces.

         Clocktower Automata and Mechanical Statues: As Europe slowly emerged from the Middle Ages, automata became fashionable once again. Clock chimes have been dated to the ninth century, clocktower mobiles have been dated to the 14th century, and water powered mobiles in the gardens of the nobility have been dated to the 16th century. As far as human automata were concerned, the most ambitious attempt of all seems to have been Barbiton, although the English mathematician-inventor Roger Bacon (1220-1292) experimented with a talking head, and even the great Rene Descartes is reported (we must assume scurrilously) to have travelled with an artificial female companion! Later still, the Italian Gianello Torriano made automata for the amusement of Emperor Charles V of Lombardy (including a life-sized female lute player which has survived), and the French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) built a clockwork duck [cut-away drawing] containing more than a thousand moving parts and capable of a range of lifelike behaviours (including simulated defecation) for the amusement of his Parisian patrons.




Aleksander, I. and Burnett, P. (1983), Reinventing Man: The Robot Becomes Reality (Harmondsworth: Pelican).

Ash, B. (Ed.) (1977), The Visual Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (London: Pan).

Cohen, J. (1966), Human Robots in Myth and Science (London: Allen and Unwin).

Franklin, H.B. (2000), 'Computers in fiction', in The Encyclopaedia of Computer Science (4th Edition), Ralston, A., Reilly, E.D., and Hemmendinger, D. (Eds.) (New York: Groves).

Heyl, E. (1964), 'An unhurried view of automata', The Magic Cauldron, Supplement #13.

Lindsay, D. (1997), 'Talking head', American Heritage of Invention and Technology, 13, pp. 57-63.

Mazlish, B. (1993), The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).

Pratt, V. (1987), Thinking Machines: The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence (Oxford: Blackwell).

Spence, L. (1915), Myths and Legends of Egypt (London: Harrap).

Wood, G. (2002), Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (London: Faber and Faber).