4.28.2009

Robots, Artificial Intelligence, Steam Power, and Sound Effects
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Robotics and AI is not really a 20th century phenomenon. As far back as the ancient Greeks, machine simulations of nature were all the rage.

As referenced in the title, these were just a few of the inventions that were born in ancient Alexandria and the Greek states of Southern Italy. AI researcher Dr. Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield puts the nativity of robotics as far back as 280 B.C.E.



First there was the Greek mathematician Archytas (above) and his steam powered birds, reportedly able to fly up to 200 meters, representing the first self-propelled flying device according to the Roman compiler Aulus Gellius, author of a first century C.E. work in 20 books called Attic Nights (Athens Nights) which documented all of the curious facts that well-to-do Romans might learn during their time abroad in Athens studying (the equivalent of going off to university). Archytas, a friend of Plato, was appointed leader of his city-state in Magna Graecia in Italy's boot and may have been inspiration for Plato's idea of the philosopher-king.

Hero of Alexandria created a mechanical, self-powered cart to carry and remove props for theatrical performances, a programmable 'theater' that controlled character motion by sequences of knots on string.

Thus, he had created a simple kind of machine language, with on/off switches, what we know as binary. This 'theater' may be considered as a precursor of amusements such as whack-a-mole, with significant hydraulic components. He also designed practical tools such as force-pumps used in firefighting, syringes, and even a sound effects machine that dropped metal balls onto a sheet metal drum to simulate the sound of thunder at specific moments during a performance.

He also created a stand-alone steam turbine, the aeolipile (a concept used in all steam engines including solar steam turbines today), and a coin-operated vending machine that dispensed holy water, in proportion to the weight of the coin.

In later times, the Greek rulers of the Byzantine Empire reportedly had a mechanical roaring lion and twittering artificial birds (both probably steam-powered) to impress visitors to the Palace. The western (Catholic) church prelate Liutprand of Cremona, a Lombard from northern Italy, gives an eyewitness account of palace life in this text, based on his visit in the year 968. Yeats' poem Sailing to Byzantium contains the following passage:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

referring to the mechanical singing birds of Theophilus.

The caliph of Baghdad had similar automata, including programmable characters in the 13th century created by the engineer Al-Jazari. The machines were designed to serve and entertain guests as a diversion during dinner parties. His publication, Handbook of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (appearing in 1206 C.E.) described more than fifty mechanical designs.


Al-Jazari's programmable 'android' capable of serving guests and playing music.

In Western Europe, such creations were unknown until the Renaissance, when Leonardo daVinci created a programmable automatic lion that walked and was able to present a bouquet of flowers to the Prince. According to roboticist Marc Rorsheim, this lion was based upon a kind of mechanical cart design that is apparent in Leonardo's working sketchbook, the Codex Atlanticus.

Robots in the past, far from being intentional anachronism as in the old TV show the Wild Wild West, actually existed to a certain degree. The fictitious genre steampunk may represent at attempt to explore this alternative reality.

What is it then that stopped these innovations from gaining wider use? It may have been the lack of channels to disperse these ideas that prevented technical revolutions from happening much earlier. It's apparent that innovation is not linear, but waveform.

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