History of Robots, Cyborgs, and Androids Part 1

About the history and development of robots, cyborgs, and androids from ancient history to modern times.


Since ancient times, humans have dreamed of owning the perfect slave, who without complaint or fatigue would respond to every desire, who without raising an eyebrow would perform a kinky sex act or build a brick wall or provide wings to travel to some distant place. The robot is the expression of that dream.

Modern robots are truly the ancients' dreams come true. Homer and Apollonius both described mythical mobile robots which moved by themselves and dispensed various drinks, including wine, to people at a party, a concept brought to reality by National Cash Register's Electra-Bar, which can mix 36 drinks in one fourth the time a bartender can, without any spilling, and keep track of cash flow and inventory.

When mythical King Pygmalion fell in love with a statue he made, Aphrodite, to assuage his frustration, brought it to life--the perfect partner, a fully formed woman with a blank-slate mind and personality, ready for programming. The longing for the acquiescent robot lover has continued through history. The philosopher Descartes, the first to propose that animals might be viewed as complex machines, supposedly made himself a female automaton, called Francine, and took her, concealed in a case, on a sea voyage. A curious fellow passenger, the story goes, opened the case and reported his find to the captain, who, suspecting a work of the devil, threw the unfortunate Francine overboard. (The details of her anatomy are not on record.) E. T. A. Hoffmann's fictional automation-vampire, heroine of his book The Sandman--with her ice-cold hands and oddly mechanical walk--inspired the French composer Leo Delibes to create Coppelia, the girl with enamel eyes, for his ballet Coppelia (1870). Today men's magazines advertise rubber life-sized dolls, and in sex research laboratories women copulate with an artificial penis, equipped with a camera eye, that responds faithfully to their signaled desires.

Androids, automatons that look and act human, go back a long way. Hero of Alexandria, a Greek, allegedly made a theater of such androids, which acted out the dance of the bacchantes. He also created mechanical birds that flapped their wings, sang, and drank.

The ancients animated their gods. When the first ray of the sun touched the lips of the statue of Memnon at Thebes, it made a sound that may have been created by levers expanding in the solar heat. Other statues were like ventriloquists' dummies. According to Plato, Daedalus (of the mythical father-son team that tried to fly to the sun on wax-and-feather wings) made statues of the gods so real that they had to be restrained from running away.

Albert Magnus, medieval seeker after knowledge, is said to have made several metal androids, which could move, answer questions, and solve problems. His android butler, 30 years in the making, could answer the door at the sound of a knock. Thomas Aquinas, his pupil, according to one source, destroyed the android, thinking the devil was in it.

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