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The curious case of ancient automata

By Alvin Soon - 12 Feb 2017

The curious case of ancient automata

Image source: ERATO ISHIGURO Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project

Erica answers the audience’s questions in Japanese. She’s a little stiff, and she can’t walk on her own. You notice her face. It’s beautiful, as it should be; it’s based on an average design of features from 30 beautiful women.

Erica, an intelligent android, is a collaborative project between Osaka and Kyoto universities, and the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International. She was unveiled in 2015, and is one of the most advanced androids in the world today, with the ability to make small talk and answer basic questions.

You might think that androids, robots built to look and act human, are a product of the recent century. But mankind has been trying to create automated machines for far longer than that.

There are plenty of myths about ‘automata,’ self-operating machines, in the ancient world. The Greek god Hephaestus created talking mechanical servants out of gold, the Jews animated clay golems by writing holy words on their foreheads, and a robot made of leather and wood apparently entertained King Mu’s court in old China.

None of these fables can be proven, but there are pieces of reality that have managed to survive the decay of time.


Automaton through the ages

The oldest machine in the world

Image source: Wikipedia

The Antikythera Mechanism is the world’s oldest surviving machine, which the Greeks made nearly 2,000 years ago. It was found off a shipwreck in 1901, and through a series of radiographic scans, was revealed to be a complex gear-based mechanism built to calculate the movement of the Sun, Moon and planets.

The fact that the Greeks could design and construct an analog calculator like the Mechanism in 150–100 BC, makes you think twice about how advanced ancient civilizations could have been. It might even lend credit to what the ancient Greek poet Pindar (c. 522 – c. 443 BC) wrote about the island of Rhodes, which sounds suspiciously like a description of automata: “The animated figures stand / Adorning every public street / And seem to breathe in stone, or move their marble / feet.”

A 12th century instruction book

Image source: Wikipedia

Ismail al-Jazari, an Arabic polymath, may have created automata in the 12th century. Al-Jazari wrote The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, in which he describes 50 mechanical devices, including instructions on how to construct them. Working models of his devices have even been built using his book.

One of al-Jazari’s most well known inventions is his elephant clock; a model of an Asian elephant that houses a clock powered by water and weights. The various elements, including a serpent, a figure in a tower and an elephant rider, move and make a sound every half-hour.

The earliest Japanese robots

Image source: Oikawa Ryoichi and Nihon Shashinka Kyokai for Nagoya Museum

Automata flourished during the Edo period in Japan, circa 1603–1867. The Japanese called theirs ‘karakuri ningyo,’ or ‘mechanical dolls’ that were powered by clockwork. The most common were known as ‘zashiki karakuri,’ dolls that moved and served cups of tea for home entertainment.

There were other kinds of karakuri ningyo. Shinatama ningyŨ were ‘magician dolls’ that could perform simple ‘magic’ tricks, while yumihiki doji, or ‘archer dolls,’ could pick up arrows and shoot them at targets. Altogether, the karakuri ningyo were sorted into three main categories; as puppets for the theatre, small dolls for home entertainment, or ones that performed on wooden floats during religious festivals.

The golden age of automata

Image source: The Franklin Institute/ Darryl Moran

The years from 1848 to 1914 were called ‘The Golden Age of Automata.’ Although it was made slightly earlier, circa 1800, one of the most famous automata from this period is Maillardet’s Automaton, built by a Swiss mechanician, Henri Maillardet.

The story of Maillardet’s Automaton’s restoration is as astonishing as the automaton itself. In 1928, the estate of John Penn Brock donated pieces of a complex brass machine to The Franklin Institute science museum in Philadelphia. The machine, which was made in the image of a boy, had been damaged in a fire.

An Institute machinist managed to repair the machine, and once it was turned on, the Automaton came to life, producing intricate sketches from its drawing hand. After drawing four pictures and three poems, it signed, in the border of the final poem, “Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet,” or, “Written by the Automaton of Maillardet.”

A line runs from those old myths of mechanical servants to Maillardet’s Automaton and Erica the android. And you can’t help but wonder where this line will take us, as our curious automata continue evolving into the future.


Recreating the Antikythera Mechanism

Ever since it was discovered, the Antikythera Mechanism has fascinated the curious, and for good reason. The astronomical calculator and navigation tool was made out of complex gear mechanisms that would not be seen in history for another 1,000 years, after the Mechanism sunk near the small island of Antikythera.

Since then, there have been multiple efforts to recreate the Antikythera Mechanism in working order. Ioannis Theofanides built the first model in the 1930s. Others have followed, like Michael Wright, a former British museum curator who constructed a working model in 2006 that he believes to be a near replica of the original.

In 2010, Andrew Carol, a software engineer at Apple, debuted a working replica of the Mechanism – made entirely from Lego!

The Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot made a miniature, working replica based on the Antikythera Mechanism that you could wear on your wrist. Only four of the Antikythera Calibre 2033-CH01 watches were made, with three sent to museums for display and one put up for auction in 2012.

Two years after the release of the Calibre, Hublot released the MP-08 Antikythera Sunmoon, a watch based on the Antikythera movement. However, only 20 were made of this masterpiece watch.

A version of this article first appeared in HWM.

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