6 automaton conceptions from history you should know about


Contrary to our popular notions, the core concepts (and literary mentions) of automatons or ‘robots’ are almost 2,500 years old. For example, according to a Chinese legend (as mentioned in the 4th century BC Daoist text Lie Zi), one Yan Shi successfully created an automaton that resembled a human form. Other ancient literary works and mythological anecdotes also allude to similar robotic mechanisms – like the famed Talos, a bronze-made guardian crafted by Hephaestus himself; and the ‘bhuta vahana yanta‘ or mechanical robots of King Ajatasatru of Magadha (Eastern India), who guarded the Buddhist relics. However beyond just legends and myths, there were actual robotic designs that were contrived and conceptualized (before 19th century) by many an ingenious inventor and thinker. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at six such incredible automaton conceptions from history that preceded modern-day robots.

*Please note – Automaton pertains to “a self-operating machine”, and as such could include mechanisms that are not humanoid. Furthermore, we have decided to include CONCEPTIONS in this list, as opposed to just actual physical designs of the automatons.

1) Ctesibius’ Clepsydra (circa 250 BC) –

The comprehension of time itself started with the observation of the sun and stars, and as such the first ‘clock’ in human history was the sky itself. But the very phrase ‘flow of time’ might have been derived from man-made contraptions known as water clocks. This simple mechanism generally entailed a tank filled with water, but with a small hole in its bottom. So, as water gradually drained through this hole, the water level got reduced – which was correctly equated with the passing of time. Such water clock designs are mentioned in various ancient sources, including Babylonian (17th century BC) Egyptian (15th century BC), Persian (4th century BC), and Indian (3rd century BC).


However, in spite of the simplicity of this prototype design, there is one crucial shortcoming of the system – and that relates how the container would ultimately run out of the water, and had to be manually filled again. But Greek inventor and mathematician Ctesibius seemingly overcame this predicament by creating the world’s first artificial automatic self-regulatory system (in around 250 BC). Known as the clepsydra or “water thieve”, this fascinating automaton always maintained its jar full. This was done by using another container (with a bigger hole) to supplement the main clepsydra jar. So, whenever the water level tended to drop in the clepsydra (through its hole), water flowed from the larger container (through the bigger hole) into clepsydra and maintained the water level.


But if there was no drop in level of the water, the purpose of water clock remains incomplete. Ctesibius solved this by devising a solution to measure the water that came out of the clepsydra (that equated to the ‘flow’ of time). For this he used a third container into which the water flowed (from the clepsydra) – and this jar was equipped with a float and its pointer. So, as the water level rose in this third jar, the float also got raised. This float in turn was connected to a stick with notches, and as the stick was raised, the notches turned a gear, which ultimately moved the hand that pointed to the time. Now in terms of technology, this working scope was pretty similar to design of flush toilets, and as such the accuracy of the clepsydra automaton was never beaten till 17th century AD.

2) The Automatic Servant of Philo (circa late 3rd century BC) –

Philo of Byzantium (or Greek: Φίλων ὁ Βυζάντιος) was also known as Philo Mechanicus or Philon, and he was probably a Greek engineer, inventor and a writer from late 3rd century BC. Pertaining to the latter part, Philo compiled his large treatise known as Mechanike syntaxis (or Compendium of Mechanics) that can be majorly divided into nine book sections. Of these sections, book numbers 4 (on catapults), 5 (on pneumatics), 7 (on building fortresses) and 8 (on besieging and defending towns) have survived, while the others though lost, were thoroughly cross-referenced by the ancient author himself. Suffice it to say, the fascinating treatise offers glimpses into various types of contraptions, including what might be the world’s first water mill; a repeating crossbow mechanism; and even an eight-sided ink pot with its intrinsic supply mechanism. However the one that really stands out, relates to what is often touted as history’s first robot – the automatic servant of Philo.


Described in book number 5 – Pneumatica, the automaton in question entails a human-like robot in the form of a maid. To that end, ‘she’ held a wine jug in her right hand. And when any visitor put a cup on her left hand palm, the robot would automatically pour the wine in an initial stage – and then backed it up by pouring water for the proper composition of the drink. This is how the mechanism had been described by experts who had conducted the “Ancient Greek Technology” exhibition at the Evagoras & Kathleen Lanitis Center (in Cyprus) –

Description of the operation: Inside the maid,there are two airtight containers (with wine and water, respectively). At their bottom there are two tubes leading their content through her right hand to the lip of the jug of wine. Two air pipes start at the top of the containers, go through their bottom and lead curved into her stomach. Her left arm is linked, through the articulation, to her shoulders, while a winding rod (spring) that is positioned in extension of the restraining rod raises it. Two pipes start at the same point (joint) and come down (going through and freeing the curved perforated ends of the air pipes). The pipes of the joint have two holes or tears at their ends, with the hole in contact with the container of wine preceding that which is connected with the water container.

When the cup is placed into the maid’s palm, her hand comes down and the tubes of the joint are lifted. The hole in one pipe is aligned with the air pipe of the wine container, air enters the container and wine flows from the tube into the cup. When the cup of wine is half- full, the hand (due to weight) descends further, the passage of the air pipe of wine obstructs and the flow stops. At the same time the other tube is aligned with the air pipe of the water container and it begins to flow thus diluting the wine. When the cup is full, the hand (due to weight) descends further, the passage of the air pipe with water obstructs and the flow stops. Also, if the cup is removed at any moment, the left hand rises, the tubes of the joint descend, cutting off the air pipes, creating vacuum in the containers and stopping the liquid flow. The maid then fills the cup with wine or diluted with water of desired quantity depending on the time it is pulled from her palm.


3) Su Sung’s Cosmic Engine (circa 1092 AD) –

The ‘Cosmic Engine‘ was an incredible astronomical device from the middle ages that signified the transition from water clocks to fully mechanical clocks. Designed by the great Chinese polymath (and government minister) Su Sung, this imposing automaton was designed as a gargantuan clock tower that was over 30 ft (10 m) high. To that end, the hydromechanical device was probably powered by a rotating wheel system that was given a motional attribute by either water or liquid mercury (with mercury having the advantage of functioning even during cold weather).


As one can make out from the images, the wheel system located along the lower level of the clock automaton, is accompanied by a celestial globe (on the mid-right side). These components were further complemented by mechanically-timed and rotating mannequins. Dressed in miniature Chinese outfits, the toy-like figures exited small doors to announce the time of the day, with bells, gongs and even drums. And this globe in turn was synchronized with the power-driven armillary sphere at the top-most level of the tower. Used for observing the positions of the stars, the 10 to 20 ton sphere was possibly crafted from bronze, and it was turned with the help of an integrated chain-drive.


Now in terms of literary evidence, Su Sung’s Cosmic Engine was probably designed at the behest of Emperor Shen Tsung, who wanted to build the ‘most perfect’ clock the world had ever witnessed. In that regard, this gargantuan clock tower could not only pinpoint the time of the day, month or year, but could also account for other gauging parameters. But unfortunately, while the Cosmic Engine successfully ran for over 30 years (1092 – 1126 AD), the astronomical automaton was dismantled when the Sung dynasty rulers had to abandon their original capital at K’aifeng (and shift to Peking), after the invasion of Jurchens of the Manchuria-based Jin Dynasty.

4) Al-Jazari’s Programmable Humanoid Robots (circa 1206 AD) –

Known as an imminent Arab scholar, engineer and inventor of the 13th century, Al-Jazari established his expertise and resourcefulness through the famous book Al-Jami `bayn al-`ilm wa ‘l-`amal al-nafi `fi sina `at al-hiyal (A Compendium on the Theory and Useful Practice of the Mechanical Arts). Much like Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, al-Jazari showcased his talent in both art and engineering by compiling his conceptions and their illustrations via miniature paintings (a style of Islamic art) in the book. These conceptual designs ranged from segmented gears, water-powered elephant clocks to double acting piston pumps and perpetual flute playing gizmos. But arguably more intriguing is al-Jazari’s humanoid robots that supposedly entailed four automatic musicians on a boat.


Like most automated mechanisms of the day, the contrivance was mainly used as a attraction in royal parties where guests would marvel at the ingenuity of the device. To that end, the floating contraption consisted of two drummers, a harpist and a flutist. The drummer automatons probably incorporated a rotating cylindrical beam with pegs (cams) projecting from the component. These pegs would bump into the tiny levers that operated the main percussion. In essence, one could moved the pegs around and make the drummer play different tunes – thus transforming the automaton into a fully programmable drum mechanism.


Now, according to Professor Noel Sharkey from Computer Science, the question still remains if al-Jazari used to dynamically control the drumming automaton by refined programming. But it at least remains pretty much probable that he used similar techniques to fine-tune the rhythm played by the musical group of robots.

5) Da Vinci’s Robotic Knight (circa 1495 AD) –

Clad in heavy German-Italian medieval armor, the mechanical knight was conceived in 1495 as a humanoid automaton. We say ‘conceived’ because the machine with its system of pulleys, gears, levers and cranks, MAY have been the very first human-like automaton actually created (beyond conceptual stage) in the history of mankind – by none other than da Vinci himself. According to some accounts, this so-called robot was ceremoniously displayed at the court of Milan during a gala hosted by the city’s Duke Ludovico Sforza.


In terms of sheer ‘showmanship’, the knight automaton supposedly had the capacity to both sit down and stand up, while also showing its ability in lifting its visor and even moving its head. These complex postures and motions were achieved by what is known as a four-factor operating system integrated in the upper torso, along with a separate tri-factor system installed in the legs. Furthermore, a mechanical analog-programmable controller inside the chest accounted the power and control for the arms, while the legs were possibly regulated by an external crank arrangement that drove the cable.

And quite intriguingly, the famed roboticist Mark Rosheim (known for his contributions to NASA and Lockheed Martin) successfully built a version of this humanoid automaton in 2002 by making use of da Vinci’s drawings, discovered in 1950’s. And, the result aptly demonstrated the effectiveness of the original design with the automaton being able to fluidly move and wave.

6) Jaquet-Droz Automata (circa 1768 AD) –

Ingeniously designed by Pierre Jaquet-Droz (a talented clock-maker), his son Henri-Louis, and Jean-Frédéric Leschot, the Jaquet-Droz Automata generally entails a group of three automaton designs: the Musician, the Draughtsman and the Writer. The Musician encompasses a female organ player who can actually play a musical instrument by ‘her’ own hands, as opposed to a passive source of music. And quite remarkably, the intricate mannerism of the automaton also mimics a human – with the heaving of chest as it ‘breaths’ and its eyes following the fingers on the instrument. The subtle movements of an organ player are also replicated by the robot as it periodically balances its torso with grace.


The Draughtsman is designed as a young child who has the ability to draw four types of images – a dog with “Mon toutou” (“my doggy”) written beside it, a cupid driving a butterfly-harnessed chariot, a royal couple and a portrait of Louis XV. Fueled by three separate sets of cams that account for two-dimensional movement of the hand (along with lifting of the pencil), the automaton can mimic its human counterpart by periodically blowing on its pencil to remove the dust.


However the Writer is arguably the most complex of the three automatons – with its ability to write any customized text form below forty letters or signs. To that end, while the core mechanism of this automation is somewhat similar to its brethren, the text can be probably coded on an internal wheel (which allows the characters to be selected one by one). As for the spectacular effect of the doll impersonating a real person, the Writer uses a goose feather to write, which he dips in ink from time to time, and shakes his wrist to prevent the ink from spilling. The scope of subtlety is further maintained by the automaton’s gaze that appropriately follows the text that ‘he’ is writing.

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