There have been automata, or legends of them, around since ancient Greek mythology.
Probably the most well-known automata from the Greek mythology are the helpers that Hephaestus, the blacksmith, made. Hephaestus also made several other automatons. This link has descriptions from the poems, and also has some automatons that Daedalus made. The Cabeirian Horses may be my favorite:
Nonnus, Dionysiaca 29. 193 ff (trans. Rouse) (Greek epic C5th A.D.) :
“[The Kabeiroi] rode in a car of adamant; a pair of colts beat the dust with rattling hooves of brass, and they sent out a dry whinnying from their throats. These father Hephaistos had made with his inimitable art, breathing defiant fire between their teeth, like the pair of brazenfooted bulls which he made for Aietes the redoubtable ruler of the Kolkhians, with hot collars and burning pole. Eurymedon [one of the Kabeiroi] drove and guided the fiery mouths of the ironfoot steeds with a fiery bridle.”
They just sound awesome. I also found this explanation for how the serving tripods could have worked.
One of the earliest stand alone automatons that’s still around is this mechanical monk.
It has a neat story behind it. Here’s a great little history, but I’ll give the short version. It was commissioned by Philip II, King of Spain who’s son was dying. He prayed that if God would give him a miracle by healing his son, he would give a miracle of his own. His son got better, and this mechanical monk is the king’s miracle.
The Japanese had these karakuri dolls in the 1600’s:
I like them 🙂 They are simple, charming, and they do something semi-useful. I’m happy because I found plans for making them. I may try making one sometime. (I do have to finish other projects first though)
These early automatons were not being made in a vacuum. The idea that a human could take wood, leather, cloth, and metal, and make something alive has fascinated humans probably since the dawn of time. The makers of these machines were tapping into the stories that were told about golems, mechanical helpers, and enchanted household items. People were (and still are) fascinated by automatons because it’s like seeing something out of a story come to life. (In a future post I may poke at why stories like that fascinate people)
So there’s a bit about the simpler automatons. Next I’ll look at the more advanced ones, and maybe look at what some people said about them.