Marvellous machines: early robots

By: Ben Russell
Published
Reading time: Approx 7 mins minutes

We regard robots as modern phenomena, but in fact they have a rich cultural history that stretches back over 500 years. If we trace it back to its early roots we can shine a light on some truly marvellous machines that have been given human form or behaved in lifelike ways.

Religious robots

The earliest robots were associated with and inspired by religion. In the Middle Ages, awe and terror were aroused in people who saw moving figures of Christ on the cross, the devil and even ‘fire witches’. These robots were spectacular, and they helped the church to exert a powerful hold over those who saw them.

Some of the earliest self-regulating machines (the term robots would not be coined until the 20th century) were built to explain the movements of the heavens.

This picture from the manuscript 'The Clock of Wisdom', 1406, shows a range of timepieces, including a weight-driven clock and the oldest known image of a spring-driven table clock

This picture from the manuscript 'The Clock of Wisdom', 1406, shows a range of timepieces, including a weight-driven clock and the oldest known image of a spring-driven table clock

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

 
 

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.

The man-machine

Astronomical clock dials, as built at Hampton Court Palace for King Henry VIII, UK, 1540–42 (this replica 1961–62)

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.

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.

Articulated manikin from 'Opera Chirurgica', book, Padua, Italy, 1723

Articulated manikin from 'Opera Chirurgica', book, Padua, Italy, 1723


Between 1500 and 1700 it was re-established, enabling anatomists and philosophers to make new and ground-breaking explorations of the body.

They found that opening a body was easy but determining its purpose and functions was not. So, as a means to understanding, they devised a formal comparison between the human body and a complex mechanical clock—a unified whole made up of many smaller systems that worked together

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: ‘The human body is a machine that winds up its own springs, a living image of perpetual motion’.

For others however, 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 manikin, Italy, 1582–1600

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.

Even as such fundamental shifts occurred, appreciation of the spectacular power of the man-machine persisted.

The thrill of a show

The evolution of robots moved quickly.  By the 19th century they could 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 people thrilled their human owners and spectators who witnessed their performances.

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

Engraved writing, in the style of the Draughtsman-Writer automaton, London, about 1830
Automaton Draughtsman-Writer, by Henri Maillardet, UK, about 1800

Automaton Draughtsman-Writer, by Henri Maillardet, UK, about 1800

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

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

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 humanoid robots: acting as a mirror that reflects back to humans images of what we are or what we might be. It is a role they continue to perform to this day.