5 incredible automaton conceptions from history that preceded modern-day robots

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Contrary to our popular notions, the core concepts (and literary mentions) of automatons or ‘robots’ are almost 2,500 years old. For example, according to a Chinese legend (as mentioned in the 4th century BC Daoist text Lie Zi), one Yan Shi successfully created an automaton that resembled a human form. Other ancient literary works and mythological anecdotes also allude to similar robotic mechanisms – like the famed Talos, a bronze-made guardian crafted by Hephaestus himself; and the ‘bhuta vahana yanta‘ or mechanical robots of King Ajatasatru of Magadha (Eastern India), who guarded the Buddhist relics. However beyond just legends and myths, there were actual robotic designs that were contrived and conceptualized (before 19th century) by many an ingenious inventor and thinker. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at five such incredible automaton conceptions from history that preceded modern-day robots.

*Please note – Automaton pertains to “a self-operating machine”, and as such could include mechanisms that are not humanoid. Furthermore, we have decided to include CONCEPTIONS in this list, as opposed to actual physical designs of the automatons.

1) Ctesibius’ Clepsydra (circa 250 BC) –

The comprehension of time itself started with the observation of the sun and stars, and as such the first ‘clock’ in human history was the sky itself. But the very phrase ‘flow of time’ might have been derived from man-made contraptions known as water clocks. This simple mechanism generally entailed a tank filled with water, but with a small hole in its bottom. So, as water gradually drained through this hole, the water level got reduced – which was correctly equated with the passing of time. Such water clock designs are mentioned in various ancient sources, including Babylonian (17th century BC) Egyptian (15th century BC), Persian (4th century BC), and Indian (3rd century BC).

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However, in spite of the simplicity of this prototype design, there is one crucial shortcoming of the system – and that relates how the container would ultimately run out of the water, and had to be manually filled again. But Greek inventor and mathematician Ctesibius seemingly overcame this predicament by creating the world’s first artificial automatic self-regulatory system (in around 250 BC). Known as the clepsydra or “water thieve”, this fascinating automaton always maintained its jar full. This was done by using another container (with a bigger hole) to supplement the main clepsydra jar. So, whenever the water level tended to drop in the clepsydra (through its hole), water flowed from the larger container (through the bigger hole) into clepsydra and maintained the water level.

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But if there was no drop in level of the water, the purpose of water clock remains incomplete. Ctesibius solved this by devising a solution to measure the water that came out of the clepsydra (that equated to the ‘flow’ of time). For this he used a third container into which the water flowed (from the clepsydra) – and this jar was equipped with a float and its pointer. So, as the water level rose in this third jar, the float also got raised. This float in turn was connected to a stick with notches, and as the stick was raised, the notches turned a gear, which ultimately moved the hand that pointed to the time. Now in terms of technology, this working scope was pretty similar to design of flush toilets, and as such the accuracy of the clepsydra automaton was never beaten till 17th century AD.

2) Su Sung’s Cosmic Engine (circa 1092 AD) –

The ‘Cosmic Engine‘ was an incredible astronomical device from the middle ages that signified the transition from water clocks to fully mechanical clocks. Designed by the great Chinese polymath (and government minister) Su Sung, this imposing automaton was designed as a gargantuan clock tower that was over 30 ft (10 m) high. To that end, the hydromechanical device was probably powered by a rotating wheel system that was given a motional attribute by either water or liquid mercury (with mercury having the advantage of functioning even during cold weather).

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As one can make out from the images, the wheel system located along the lower level of the clock automaton, is accompanied by a celestial globe (on the mid-right side). These components were further complemented by mechanically-timed and rotating mannequins. Dressed in miniature Chinese outfits, the toy-like figures exited small doors to announce the time of the day, with bells, gongs and even drums. And this globe in turn was synchronized with the power-driven armillary sphere at the top-most level of the tower. Used for observing the positions of the stars, the 10 to 20 ton sphere was possibly crafted from bronze, and it was turned with the help of an integrated chain-drive.

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Now in terms of literary evidence, Su Sung’s Cosmic Engine was probably designed at the behest of Emperor Shen Tsung, who wanted to build the ‘most perfect’ clock the world had ever witnessed. In that regard, this gargantuan clock tower could not only pinpoint the time of the day, month or year, but could also account for other gauging parameters. But unfortunately, while the Cosmic Engine successfully ran for over 30 years (1092 – 1126 AD), the astronomical automaton was dismantled when the Sung dynasty rulers had to abandon their original capital at K’aifeng (and shift to Peking), after the invasion of Jurchens of the Manchuria-based Jin Dynasty.

3) Al-Jazari’s Programmable Humanoid Robots (circa 1206 AD) –

Known as an imminent Arab scholar, engineer and inventor of the 13th century, Al-Jazari established his expertise and resourcefulness through the famous book Al-Jami `bayn al-`ilm wa ‘l-`amal al-nafi `fi sina `at al-hiyal (A Compendium on the Theory and Useful Practice of the Mechanical Arts). Much like Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, al-Jazari showcased his talent in both art and engineering by compiling his conceptions and their illustrations via miniature paintings (a style of Islamic art) in the book. These conceptual designs ranged from segmented gears, water-powered elephant clocks to double acting piston pumps and perpetual flute playing gizmos. But arguably more intriguing is al-Jazari’s humanoid robots that supposedly entailed four automatic musicians on a boat.

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Like most automated mechanisms of the day, the contrivance was mainly used as a attraction in royal parties where guests would marvel at the ingenuity of the device. To that end, the floating contraption consisted of two drummers, a harpist and a flutist. The drummer automatons most probably incorporated a rotating cylindrical beam with pegs (cams) projecting from the component. These pegs would bump into the tiny levers that operated the main percussion. In essence, one could moved the pegs around and make the drummer play different tunes – thus transforming the automaton into a fully programmable drum mechanism.

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Automaton arbiter for dispensing liquids for drinking – based on a similar principle.

Now, according to Professor Noel Sharkey from Computer Science, the question still remains if al-Jazari used to dynamically control the drumming automaton by refined programming. But it at least remains pretty much probable that he used similar techniques to fine-tune the rhythm played by the musical group of robots.

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