If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others. If the shuttle could weave, and the pick touch the lyre, without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not need servants, nor masters slaves.
So wrote Aristotle of the possibilities of the automaton: an object acting of itself, something bearing the power of spontaneous motion. The advent of such a mechanism not only promised to change labor – eliminating the need for servants and slaves – but also had the potential to change media production and publication.
In tracing the development of the automaton from its roots in ritual articulated objects to its contemporary versions, (particularly in the context of robots and models of cellular automata in computability theory and theoretical biology), it is useful to keep Aristotle’s commentary from the fourth century B.C. in mind.
The history of automata begins with “creation” itself. Genealogies of these self-replicating objects extend back to the creation myths of every religion and culture – from the story of God’s creation of Adam to the story of Prometheus, who made the first man and woman on earth from clay, which he animated with the fire he stole from heaven. Moreover, the earliest articulated objects from prehistory of early historic times probably served both artistic and religious purposes: used by shamans, priests, and entertainers, these simple clay or wooden dolls with turning heads, arms, legs and hands could provide the illusion of movement as it occurs in nature, thus adding emotional impact to plays and fables.
This baker kneading dough is an articulated Egyptian toy, one which was probably found in the tomb from the time of the XII dynasty onwards. By being deposited in the tomb, the baker became forever bound to his master, accompanying him into the Beyond to continue to perform his duties through the rest of time.
The purposes of automata were not strictly in the realm of morality and spirituality. Hero of Alexandria (who is credited with the invention of the crank, the cam-shaft and a system of rotations and counterweights, as well as with having demonstrated the principles of the vacuum and the incompressibility of water) used automata to illustrate scientific principles. In his Treatise on Pneumatics from A.D. 62, he laid out applications of science in the forms of singing birds, sounding trumpets, animals that could drink and coin-operated machines. Hero’s most famous automaton, though, is the steam eolipile, which, in showing the expansion of gas when heated and the force of reaction in its escape, is regarded as an ancestor of the steam engine:
Above all, automata were sources of delight and entertainment: mechanical orchestras, living snuff boxes and cuckoo-clocks. From King-shu Tse’s 500 B.C. flying magpie of wood and bamboo to Jacques de Vaucanson’s A.D. 1738 duck, which could eat, drink, splash around the water and digest its food like a real duck, inventors imitated nature for the delight of man:
Over time, the makers of automata moved from simply trying to recreate the motion of creatures in the natural world to trying to use these motions to accomplish the work of those very creatures. This is not to say that entertainment automata disappeared – after all, fake talking human heads like Roger Bacon’s from the 13th century still capture the wonder (and horror) of onlookers at circus fairs and carnivals, as do automaton scribes, dancers and singers in the tradition of those seen below (and in the tradition of “It’s a Small World”).
Picture: The Jaquet-Droz Writer, 1774. Artifact courtesy of the Neuchâtel Museum.