The Early History of Robots and Automata

Gears for Mechanical Device

Written and researched by Philip Graves for GWS Robotics, 25th-28th June, 2018

What is a Robot?

Oxford Dictionaries gives multiple definitions of robot[1]. One is limited to the realm of science fiction, while another is figuratively employed in respect of people. But it is the real-world use of robot to describe a type of machine in which we are interested here: ‘a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by computer’.

Since the use of the modifier ‘especially’ implicitly extends the definition of robot to all forms of machine that carry out complex actions automatically, we must look back to before the age of computers for the first examples of robots.

The modern use of the word ‘robots’ in representation of machines that operate automatically dates back to Czech writer Karel Čapek's science fiction play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti, first published in 1920; before then, the term ‘automata’ was widely used instead to convey the same meaning.

Before 1920, 'robots', though it was in fairly common use as a word, was typically restricted in its application to the sense of servile human labourers: see for example the references in 'Revelations of Austria Volume 2' by Michał Kubrakiewicz (1846).[1a]

In fact, a study of literary references as automatically collated by Google Ngram shows that 'automaton' and 'automata' have continued to be widely used alongside 'robot' and 'robots' to the present day.[1b]  It was only in 1941 that the volume of references to 'robot' first surpassed that of references to 'automaton'; and they subsequently changed places over the following decades, before 'robot' definitively took the upper hand in 1971; while the plural form 'robots' first overook 'automata' in 1931 before also changing places with it sporadically over the decades to follow, and definitively surpassing it in 1978.[1c]

What do we know about the History of Robots?

A useful recent source on the history of robots, particularly focused on those designed to take a human form, is the book ‘Robots: the 500-year quest to make machines human’ edited by Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum, London, and published in 2017 by Scala Arts & Heritage Publishers Ltd..

We owe its expert compilers a debt of gratitude for their research; and while the book looks beyond the simple history of robots as machines to address essentially philosophical questions such as the difference between a robot and a human, questions that exceed the scope of this article, we shall refer extensively to its historical findings here, in summary form.

Ancient Automata

Contributing author E. R. Truitt traces the production of automata back to the 3rd century BCE, and the moving figures designed and built by engineers trained in Alexandria, ancient Egypt[2].

During the Ptolemaic Dynasty that ruled Egypt for the next three centuries, moving figures and statues of humans (including mechanical trumpeters), animals and mythological beasts were integrated into the Royal pageantry.

Some of them used the most advanced hydraulic and pneumatic engineering of the day, while others, designed as theatre props, operated on the same principles as clockwork, being powered by falling weights that drive axles, as evidenced in the account by the famed technical writer Hero of Alexandria entitled ‘Peri automatopoietikes’ (‘on making automata’)[3].

Medieval Automata, 900-1400

In early medieval times, Arabic-speaking scholars translated ancient Greek texts on automata into Arabic, paving the way for further developments in automation engineering over the following centuries.

Truitt records[4] that Arabic mechanical engineers introduced new types of gears and valves that assisted them in producing more complex automata than the ancient Alexandrians had managed, including (among other examples) wine-servants able both to pour a liquid from a large vessel to a smaller one and to hand the smaller vessel to a human; water-clocks tracking time with moving zodiacal dials; and programmable water jets and fountains. Some of these were described in ‘The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices’ by Ismail Al-Jazari, which has been dated to 1206, while other sources describing medieval automata date back to the 11th century.

There are surviving eyewitness accounts of chirping mechanical birds in middle-eastern palaces as early as the 9th and 10th centuries, with some reports of mechanical lions in what was then known as Constantinople (nowadays Istanbul). The knowledge of how to make mechanical birds had spread to western Europe a few centuries later, and realistic examples were found at Hesdin, the French chateau of Count Robert II of Artois in Picardy, in the 14th century, alongside mechanical monkeys[5]. Robert’s successor at Hesdin, Duke Philip III of Burgundy, took this theme further in the following century, adding a mechanised fountain, a mechanical talking hermit, and more malign playful contraptions such as jets of soot and figures armed with sticks programmed to attack visitors.[6]

Albertus Magnus, a 14th century Dominican friar who was also an astrologer, created a talking metal statue that pronounced oracular responses to questions asked to it before it was deliberately broken by Saint Thomas Aquinas, another friar from the same order who had studied under Albert but believed the automaton to be an evil idol[7].

King Richard II of England was ceremonially crowned by a mechanical angel built by the goldsmiths’ guild the day before his official coronation in 1377.

Renaissance and early modern automata, 1400-1799

By the sixteenth century, the creation of realistically human-looking robotic figures had become more commonplace, and the sophistication of robotic engineering had been considerably refined and developed. Robotic musicians able to play instruments were now featured alongside robotic dancers.[8] By 1738, a fully functional flute-playing robot had been created by Jacques de Vaucanson and put on show in Paris, as Andrew Nahum records in great detail.[9]

In religious settings, robotic monks were popular for display, alongside bleeding models of Jesus and roaring depictions of Satan. A surviving example of the Renaissance robotic monk, commissioned by King Philip II of Spain, used a clockwork mechanism to pray, walk, move its lips, lift objects, and beat its chest.[10] The Catholic Church widely commissioned clocks that featured advanced automata playing out Biblical scenes.[11]

In the 1770s, Swiss clockmaker Pierre Jacquet-Droz built a series of sophisticated robots, some of which are kept in working condition to this day. They include a breathing woman playing a harpsichord, and a boy writing a series of notes with real ink drawn from a quill.[12]

Also in the 1770s, Belgian mechanic Joseph Merlin created a mechanical swan able to dive into a mechanical bed of turbulent water, and catch and swallow a small mechanical fish[13]; while Hungarian Wolfgang von Kempelen created a remote-controlled chess-playing Turk that became a popular stage showpiece on tour, its mechanical arm liftable to move chess pieces between squares on demand by the concealed controller, thereby creating the illusion of artificial intelligence[14].

Early industrial automata, 1740-1800

While automata were mainly used for entertainment purposes in those days, their industrial potential as cost-saving efficiency-boosting devices had begun to be explored. Aside from his flute-player, de Vaucanson had also developed in the 1740s an automatic silk-weaving loom able to follow instructions programmed into it on cards. This invention caused riots by crochet workers and left the inventor in fear for his life[15], but was subsequently further developed with the first proven commercial application of digital programming in the form of cards punched with unique patterns by Joseph Jacquard.

Also around the 1740s, an automatic lathe was produced, reputedly for King Frederick II of Prussia. It has since been acquired and restored by the Science Museum.[16] 

In 1785, an integrated fully automatic water-powered industrial flour mill that operated continuously using elevators and conveyor belts to transport material through the system was introduced by Oliver Evans in Delaware, USA.[16a] The industrial revolution, assisted by automatic machinery, was well underway.

The development of the Watt steam engine[16b] between 1763 and 1775 is commonly regarded as a turning point in the industrial revolution, since it vastly increased the efficiency of steam engines, earlier, inefficient iterations of which had been in use to pump water since 1712, and therefore allowed for much more power-demanding automated industrial tasks to be engineered. By 1800, nearly 500 Watt engines were in industrial use powering mill machinery, water pumps and blast furnaces.[16c]

Early modern robots, 1920-1959

In the 1920s and 1930s, in the UK a number of remote-controlled full-sized humanoid robots with multi-part metal bodies and limbs able to carry out sophisticated movements was produced. These were designed and built for public display and show by a couple of British engineers seemingly working independently of each other at similar times.

Captain W. H. Richards of Devon built ones called Eric (1928) and George (1932). Eric has been described as a 45kg aluminium armour-plated knight with spark-shooting electrified teeth. He was able to stand and sit, bow, gesticulate, turn his head to either side, and speak for up to four minutes.[17] At a later stage in his development, the playing of more than fifty pre-recorded spoken answers could be activated in response to questions posed by live audiences or other interlocutors at the intervention of a remote human operator[18], in a manner not dissimilar to how today’s social robots are deployed in live demonstrations almost 90 years later.

George featured a more refined physical form bearing a closer resemblance to the natural shape of the human body, and was invested with wireless remote control and virtual eyes based on photo-electric cells.[19]

Subsequently, Charles Lawson of Northamptonshire created a robot called Robert, the prototype for which was completed in 1938. Robert talked using prerecorded sounds reproduced on an internal record player. His trademark party trick was the nowadays deeply unfashionable habit of smoking a cigarette – quite a feat for an inorganic body having only a metal half-cylinder in place of a chest and bellows instead of lungs[20]. He was activated by voice control to perform dozens of preset routines.

In 1937, another smoking robot named Elektro had been showcased at an exhibition in the United States, leading some historians to suspect that Lawson’s Robert took inspiration from it.

Also in the United States, another robotic humanoid named Robert, but this one bearing more corporeal resemblances to George rather than to the British Robert, emerged as an acting prop for the actress Diana Dors in the early 1950s. The family of Captain Richards reports that this Robert was also built by him, although he was not publicly credited with it in promotional materials of the time.[21]

Early Modern Computers, 1830-1969

Before signing off, we shall present a brief overview of the early history of computers, since computers are the essential programming control systems that drive modern robots, as well as driving purely visual and sonic routines such as graphical displays and animated computer games on visual display units.

Starting in 1833, Charles Babbage designed a blueprint for the first modern computer involving separate software-serving and hardware components, which he called the Analytical Engine.[22] It incorporated arithmetic logic, conditional branching and loops, and memory, and had several dedicated programs written for it in subsequent years.[23]

But only small parts of Babbage’s massive design were constructed in his lifetime; and it was not until the 1930s and 1940s, a whole century later, that the modern development of computers really took off, thanks primarily to Alan Turing, who In 1936 developed his detailed concept of a universal machine that became the blueprint for all modern computer design.

In 1941, a computer able to simultaneously solve 29 equations was constructed by J. V. Atanasoff and Clifford Berry of Iowa State University, while in 1943-4, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania built a huge digital computer called ENIAC (Electronical Numerical Integrator and Calculator) that deployed 18,000 vacuum tubes and filled a 6*12 metre room. The subsequent invention of the transistor in 1947 paved the way to space-saving tubeless solid state electronics and to the integrated circuit in 1958.[24]

The first modern computer languages allowing programmers to convey simple-to-understand instructions instead of having to use assembly language were developed in the 1950s. The late Corrado Böhm of the University of Rome was an early pioneer. In the UK, a language called Autocode was developed in 1952. Subsequently, the better-known Fortran appeared in 1957, with Lisp following in 1958, Cobol in 1959, and the first incarnation of BASIC in 1964. C, a staple of late 20th century computing, was a relative latecomer to the scene, with development taking place from 1969 to 1973. [25]


The lineage of robots and history of robotics has perhaps unexpectedly ancient origins; and much as 21st century developments have thrust the field into the spotlight in a novel or futuristic light, these developments are only the most recent products of thousands of years of successive developments in mechanical engineering driving automatic routines; while even the digital technology by which today’s robots are programmed has been under development since its first appearance in industrial applications in the 1740s.


[2] Russell, ed., op. cit., pp. 34-5

[4] Russell, ed., op. cit, p. 35

[5] Russell, ed., op. cit., pp. 42-5

[6] Russell, ed., op. cit., p. 45

[7] Russell, ed., op. cit., p. 45

[8] Russell, ed., op. cit., p. 46

[9] Russell, ed., op. cit., pp. 51-3

[10] Russell, ed., op. cit., pp. 48-9

[11] Russell, ed., op. cit., p. 54

[12] Russell, ed., op. cit., pp. 54-7

[13] Russell, ed., op. cit., p. 58

[14] Russell, ed., op. cit., pp. 58-60

[15] Russell, ed., op. cit., p. 64

[16] Russell, ed., op. cit., pp. 68-9

[17] Russell, ed., op. cit., p. 76

[18] Russell, ed., op. cit., p. 77

[19] Russell, ed., op. cit., pp. 78-9

[22] Russell, ed., op. cit., p. 64