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Marvellous machines: early robots

Published: 20 November 2018

When we think of robots, we conjure up a futuristic vision of a shiny humanoid. But robots can take many forms and their history stretches back over 500 years.

Read on to find out about these early marvellous machines.

Clocks: the earliest form of robot?

Earliest known picture of clock Science Museum Group Collection
Hand-coloured photograph (1964) of the earliest known illustration of a clock, from 'L'Horloge da Sapience (The Clock of Wisdom), 1406.

Some of the earliest self-regulating machines were built to explain the movements of the heavens. These machines were robots in all but name, although the word ‘robot’ would not be coined until the 20th century.

Early self-regulating machines

Beginning in the 14th century, European clockmakers constructed clocks and astronomical models of increasing complexity:

Early self-regulating machines

The Universe behaves no differently than a clockwork.

Christian Wolff (1719)

These machines were often expressions of religious faith, arising from the belief that the act of modelling God’s universe would bring people closer to him.

God’s creation was seen as having two essential parts: the heavens and the human body. These were the most complex, mysterious things known to man, and machines proved central to our evolving understanding of both of them.

Astronomical clock dials, as built at Hampton Court Palace for King Henry VIII, UK, 1540–42 (this replica 1961–62).
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Astronomical clock dials, as built at Hampton Court Palace for King Henry VIII, UK, 1540–42 (this replica 1961–62).

People who were anxious to assert not only their spiritual faith but also their earthly power and authority commissioned the most highly skilled craftsmen to make elaborate clocks. Expensive and intricate, these lavish timepieces became powerful status symbols.

Complex mechanical machines

The spread of clocks throughout the world gave rise to comparisons between them and the other complex machine—the human body. The practise of dissecting human cadavers for examination and study had been forbidden since the days of the Roman Empire. Between 1500 and 1700 it was re-established, enabling anatomists and philosophers to make new and ground-breaking explorations of the body.

Woodcut of Andreas Vesalius dissecting a cadaver
Woodcut of Andreas Vesalius dissecting a cadaver, frontispiece of De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), containing detailed descriptions of human anatomy, 1555

They found that opening a body was easy but understanding what was happening inside it was not. So they made comparisons between the human body and a complex mechanical clock—a unified whole made up of many smaller systems that worked together. 

Passion, memory, and imagination follow from the arrangement of the machine’s organs as the movements of a clock or automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels.

René Descartes (1664)

Early recreations of the human form

This approach sparked controversy. On one hand, the body-machine was perceived as beautiful. The French physician and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie wrote in 1749 that 'the human body is a machine that winds up its own springs, a living image of perpetual motion'.

Articulated iron manikin used to teach bone-setting, possibly Italian, 1570-1700.

More about this object

For others, though, it was a scary idea. Here was the vitality of the human form reduced to vulgar cogs and gearwheels. The suggestion that human beings might be mere machines rather than unique individuals with free will was looked upon as a debasement of God's creation.

Articulated artificial right arm, iron, European, early 16th century.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Articulated artificial right arm, iron, European, early 16th century.
Articulated artificial left hand and forearm, iron, European, 16th century.
Science Museum Group Collection More information about Articulated artificial left hand and forearm, iron, European, 16th century.

Attempts were made to recreate the human form in metal. Armourers were among the first people to wrestle with the practical difficulties of doing this, crafting suits of armour and even prosthetic limbs to replace those lost in combat.

The robot entertainers

Even as such fundamental shifts occurred, appreciation of the power of the man-machine persisted and the evolution of robots moved quickly.  They began to be found not just in places of worship, but in shows and attractions, in cabinets of wonder and even on dinner tables. In these diverse places, mechanical beings thrilled those who witnessed their performances.

Engraved writing Science Museum Group Collection Image source for Engraved writing
Engraved writing, in the style of the Draughtsman-Writer automaton, London, about 1830

Controlled by elaborate mechanical ‘cams’—a sort of machine-memory that preceded computers—these mechanical machines performed many remarkable human tasks, from writing short poems and drawing pictures to performing music.

Like living Watches, each of these conceals
A thousand Springs of Life, and moving Wheels.

Richard Leigh (1675)

Alongside these machines came mechanical caterpillars, spiders and even mice, embodying tiny precision mechanisms and often richly decorated.

Automaton spider with mechanism revealed
Automaton spider, with the body removed to show the mechanism inside

This life-sized spider is an amazing survival from the earliest days of such delicate machines. It was most probably made in Southern Germany, just after 1600. It was wound up with a key, and when propelled across a table on wheels beneath, the legs moved up and down by a tiny cam mechanism inside its body.

Automaton Lathe

Automaton Lathe

Not all robot entertainers looked immediately life-like. This machine from around 1740 is a lathe, which automatically replicated the tasks of a human worker making decorated wooden medallions. The machine’s owner is unclear, but it was someone who had the prestige and money to employ some of the finest metal craftsmen working.

Robots: reflections of humanity

All of these seemingly living machines were intended to be spectacles, able to stop a show or halt conversation as they performed.

Before machines became lifeless and rote, they were the life of the party. 

Jessica Riskin (2010)

In doing so, they gave human onlookers pause to think about the similarities and differences between themselves and the machines they were watching.

These marvellous machines established one of the central roles of robots: acting as a mirror that reflects back to us our questions about life and what we might be. It's a role they continue to perform to this day.