Mankind has dreamed of robots for thousands of years. And robots have been with us much longer than some people may suspect. Although the word “robot” did not exist until coined by Karel Capek for his 1921 Czech science fiction play, “RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots.”
Greek philosopher Aristotle once elucidated upon his concept that later would be called robots: “If every tool, when ordered, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it . . . then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers or of slaves for the lords.”
The earliest record of what can truly be defined as a robot takes us back to 350.B.C.E. and the Greek mathematician Archytas, a friend of Plato, who “constructed a wooden mechanical bird named ‘the Pigeon.’ [The bird was a fantastic mechanical] robot propelled by a jet of steam, which could fly through the air. This was the first recorded model airplane and a milestone in the history of robotics.”
The next earliest documented robot was designed by Chinese artisans in 200 B.C.E. They constructed elaborate robots that culminated in a masterpiece of engineering and design: an entire mechanical orchestra!
Another surviving record of a robot can be traced back to the city of Alexandria about 100 C.E., and its famous citizen Hero.
Hero, the greatest Greek engineer of the period crafted an automated theater featuring the god Dionysus surrounded by a bevy of swooning high-priestess robots.
The dawn of the Thirteenth century found the robotic action shifting to the Middle East. The brilliant 13th-century engineer Ibn Ismail Ibn al-Razzaz Al-Jazari of Bahgdad created programmable robot musicians to entertain nobles as they drank and lounged at their royal parties.
1525 C.E. marked an important landmark for robots – and the people who love them – because androids were built for the first time. Hans Bullmann of Nuremberg, Germany built robots that could play musical instruments and dance. At the same time, Gianello Torriano of Cremona, Italy built androids that also performed with musical instruments.
During 1533 C.E. German scholar Johann Muller is reputed to have made simulacra of an iron fly and a robotic eagle. Both flew with the aid of steam pressure. While records from 1543 C.E. assert that Englishman John Dee created a wooden beetle. It also operated with steam and flew for several minutes each flight.
Work on robots pressed forward even during Medieval times.
The year 1560 found an unknown German craftsman – probably a clockmaker – create a marvelous robot monk with levers and intricate gearing.
Jacques de Vaucanson, a French mechanical engineer built many remarkable robots during the 1730s. One played a dozen different songs on a flute while another played the tambourine. Vaucanson’s most famous creation was the amazing “digesting duck.” It “ate” grain, and eliminated its food. It also “drank” water and flapped its wings!
Not to be outdone by Vaucanson, contemporary Austrian Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built a robot chess player and a robot that mimicked human speech. That robot thrilled the ladies with, “Je t’aime de tout mon coeur” French for “I love you with all my heart.”
Nearly six decades later the master craftsman Hisashige Tanaka constructed a veritable army of robots so complex they served tea, fired arrows and wrote.
Another writing robot appeared at the close of the Eighteenth Century. Built by the German inventor Friedrich von Knauss, the robot was capable of writing over one hundred words.
During and after the Industrial Revolution robots began being manufactured in earnest. Today robots are virtually ubiquitous and are being introduces into almost every field of human endeavor.
We can only hope that as the robots are married with advancing artificial intelligence they will remain our loyal partners and friends and not become our greatest, most dangerous adversaries.