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Ancient Androids: Even Before Electricity, Robots Freaked People Out

While the term "robot" is less than a hundred years old, the urge to build a working artificial human has been around for as long as anyone can tell. Automatically animated replicas of human beings occurred in all parts of the world throughout history. These automata were powered by weights and pulleys, falling water, or hidden operators, and then later by clockwork springs which only needed to be wound up. For some engineers, the goal was to replicate, and therefore learn, how biological systems worked. For others, the invention of such machines was aimed at making human work easier. But the real value in ancient automata was their ability to impress and entertain people.

In the 600s, Chinese engineer Huang Kun, serving under Sui Yang Ti, described an outdoor mechanical puppet theater in the palace courtyards and gardens with 72 finely dressed figures that drifted on barges floating down a channel. To impress his guests, the emperor’s automata would stop to serve them wine. In Science and Civilization in China, Needham quotes Huang’s manual: “At each bend, where one of the emperor’s guests was seated, he was served with wine in the following way. The ‘Wine Boat’ stopped automatically when it reached the seat of a guest, and the cup-bearer stretched out its arm with the full cup. When the guest had drunk, the figure received it back and held it for the second one to fill again with wine. Then immediately the boat proceeded, only to repeat the same at the next stop. All these were performed by machinery set in the water.”

Mechanical robots have an extensive history, and many of those built hundreds of years ago are still around to amaze us. A fascinating article at Collectors Weekly takes us through the history of automata from around the world with plenty of pictures and videos.


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