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  • A Brief History of Robots and Automata
  • Steve Dixon (bio)

Although the word robot has been used to describe many machines and mechanical devices that are not computer controlled, stricter definitions place computational operation to the fore. Ken Goldberg broadly defines a robot as "a mechanism controlled by a computer" (2001:7) and Eduardo Kac maintains that "robots are advanced computer-controlled electromechanical appliances" (2001a:77). The Czech word "robota," variously translated as "work," "serf," or "forced labor," was adopted in the English-speaking world as "robot" directly through the title of Karel Capek's 1921 expressionist play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots). The play concerns the supplanting of humans by robots, and has been widely discussed both as a warning against Frankensteinian scientific hubris, and as an allegory of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, with the oppressed masses "recast" as robots. Its story presents an early and potent theatrical vision of the humanization of machines. On an island factory, hyperintelligent worker-robots are developed, and eventually rebel and take over, murdering their inventors and calling for the destruction of all humankind. In the final act, the celibate robots fear they will die out, and Alquist, the only human they have spared, prays to God, pleading that if there are no humans left anywhere in the world, the robot, as "the shadow of man" should be [End Page 16] able to survive and procreate. The play ends with a young male and female robot developing caring and sexual feelings for one another as Alquist declares "Go, Adam, go, Eve. The world is yours. [...] At least the shadow of man!" (Capek 1923:166).

R.U.R. sends complex and mixed messages about the humanization of machines. The robots are first presented as the unjustly oppressed, then as the unfeeling, evil oppressors, and finally as the sensitive, empathetic heroes and heroines of the piece offering a vicarious or deferred salvation for humanity.

Contemporary robot artworks and performances have a long historical lineage, which Bruce Mazlish relates back to the Hermetic story of creation, where "man is given permission [...] to create and animate artificial beings [...] or, in my terms, machines." Mazlish notes that throughout history automata have prompted fears, since they pose "an 'irrational' threat to humans, calling into question their identity, sexuality (the basis of creation?), and powers of domination" (2002). Rodney A. Brooks notes the pneumatically operated automata of Hero of Alexandria around 100 CE (2002:13), and Jeff Cook quotes Pindar from 520 BCE:

The animated figures standAdorning every street [End Page 17] And seem to breathe in stone, orMove their marble feet.

(in Cook 1997)

Max von Boehn dates the first anthropomorphic automata back to the third century BCE and suggests evidence that small automata existed in Aristotle's time, citing his reference in Physics to a silver doll that moved like a living being ([1929] 1972:8). Joseph Needham describes a vast array of mechanical figures, animals, birds, and fishes constructed in ancient China, as well as mechanized chariots and a flying automaton that he dates circa 380 BCE (1975).

The first clockwork automata were constructed in the 14th century, and clocks with automated figures became common on European cathedrals, including "crowing cocks, bears that shook heads, a king who turned a sandglass, and the twelve apostles moving in a circle" (von Boehn 1972:10). Bowing royal figures were common features, including three kings at Strasbourg Cathedral (1352) and seven bowing princes who passed before an automaton of Emperor Charles IV at twelve o'clock at the Marienkapelle in Nürnberg (1361). The clock tower at Soleure, built in 1452, "depicts a warrior beating his chest on the quarter-hours, while a skeleton clutching an arrow turns his head to the soldier on the first stroke of each hour" (Sussman 1999:88). In 1509 Leonardo Da Vinci constructed a lion that could walk; a [End Page 18] 16th-century automaton from Brittany performed a mechanical crucifixion scene; and during the 17th century, karakuri automata performed the tea-serving ceremony in Japan.

During the 18th century a number of European "master" automata craftsmen emerged, such as Jacques de Vaucanson who built a robot duck that could...


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