History of Robots, Cyborgs, and Androids Part 2

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


The 18th century abounds with automatons reminiscent of Disneyland's fake jungle animals, which bellow and lash their tails on the edges of real rivers in the midst of tropical foliage. French clockmaker Pierre Jacquet-Droz and his son Henri Louis made a mechanical organ player operated by levers that seemed to breathe, moved its head, and looked down at the score as it hit the keys. Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical duck which not only flapped its wings and drank, but also ate corn, "digested it," and excreted the results through its anus. Its wings, De Vaucanson said, were "imitated bone by bone." He also made a Pan which played the pipes and bowed. In the works when he died was an artificial human, but he had only begun the circulatory system.

Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1788 made a model of the human speech organs, which worked with a bellows. The poet Goethe said of it that it was "not very loquacious but it pronounced certain childish words very nicely." In its vocabulary were the words opera, astronomy, and Constantinople and sentences like Je vous aime de tout mon coeur ("I love you with all my heart").

Von Kempelen's invention was closer to today's robots than the lifelike piano-playing androids of the clockmakers, in that it imitated a human function somewhat more complicated than pressing down a piano key. It seems as though the closer robots come to actually performing as humans, the less they look like them.

The word robot, which comes from a root word meaning "work," was coined by Karel Capek, a libertarian Czech, in his 1920 play R.U.R. (for "Rossum's Universal Robots"). In the play, which is an antitechnology polemic, he tells the story of lifelike robot workers that, when given souls, take over the world.

In the 1930s, industry began to experiment with robots. Westinghouse created Willie Vocalite, who smoked cigarettes and, through remote control, made a speech to passengers taking off on the first commercial flight from New York to San Francisco. After bidding them bon voyage, he started up the engines. At the 1939 World's Fair, Westinghouse displayed Electro, a robot man, and Sparko, his robot dog. Electro walked, talked, counted on his fingers, told the difference between red and green (using his photoelectric eye), and gave commands to Sparko, who could wag his tail, sit up and beg for a hot dog, and bark.

None of these devices, no matter how entertaining, were real robots as defined by modern robotics experts. They were not really versatile and did not respond to environmental cues. Essential to robotics is feedback, a word coined by radio pioneers, but a concept that goes back 2,000 years to the clepsydra, a water clock that could recycle itself. Steam engines, washing machines, elevators, and most machinery of modern times employ the principle of feedback. The easiest instrument to understand is the thermostat, which responds to a temperature drop by turning on the heat.

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