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

4) Da Vinci’s Robotic Knight (circa 1495 AD) –

Clad in heavy German-Italian medieval armor, the mechanical knight was conceived in 1495 as a humanoid automaton. We say ‘conceived’ because the machine with its system of pulleys, gears, levers and cranks, MIGHT have been the very first human-like automaton actually created (beyond conceptual stage) in the history of mankind – by none other than da Vinci himself. According to some accounts, this so-called robot was ceremoniously displayed at the court of Milan during a gala hosted by the city’s Duke Ludovico Sforza.


In terms of sheer ‘showmanship’, the knight automaton supposedly had the capacity to both sit down and stand up, while also showing its ability in lifting its visor and even moving its head. These complex postures and motions were achieved by what is known as a four-factor operating system integrated in the upper torso, along with a separate tri-factor system installed in the legs. Furthermore, a mechanical analog-programmable controller inside the chest accounted the power and control for the arms, while the legs were possibly regulated by an external crank arrangement that drove the cable.


And quite intriguingly, the famed roboticist Mark Rosheim (known for his contributions to NASA and Lockheed Martin) successfully built a version of this humanoid automaton in 2002 by making use of da Vinci’s drawings, discovered in 1950’s. And, the result aptly demonstrated the effectiveness of the original design with the automaton being able to fluidly move and wave.

5) Jaquet-Droz Automata (circa 1768 AD) –

Ingeniously designed by Pierre Jaquet-Droz (a talented clock-maker), his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, the Jaquet-Droz Automata generally entails a group of three automaton designs: the Musician, the Draughtsman and the Writer. The Musician encompasses a female organ player who can actually play a musical instrument by ‘her’ own hands, as opposed to a passive source of music. And quite remarkably, the intricate mannerism of the automaton also mimics a human – with the heaving of chest as it ‘breaths’ and its eyes following the fingers on the instrument. The subtle movements of an organ player are also replicated by the robot as it periodically balances its torso with grace.


The Draughtsman is designed as a young child who has the ability to draw four types of images – a dog with “Mon toutou” (“my doggy”) written beside it, a cupid driving a butterfly-harnessed chariot, a royal couple and a portrait of Louis XV. Fueled by three separate sets of cams that account for two-dimensional movement of the hand (along with lifting of the pencil), the automaton can mimic its human counterpart by periodically blowing on its pencil to remove the dust.


However, the Writer is arguably the most complex of the three automatons – with its ability to write any customized text form below forty letters or signs. To that end, while the core mechanism of this automation is somewhat similar to its brethren, the text can be probably coded on an internal wheel (which allows the characters to be selected one by one). As for the spectacular effect of the doll impersonating a real person, the Writer uses a goose feather to write, which he dips in ink from time to time, and shakes his wrist to prevent the ink from spilling. The scope of subtlety is further maintained by the automaton’s gaze that appropriately follows the text that ‘he’ is writing.

Other Sources: Needham, Joseph (1986), Science and Civilization in China.

The article was published in our sister-site Realm of History.

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