Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Automata--the first robot companions

In my novella, The Break-In, published by Dreamspinner Press, roboticist Forbes Pohle creates a robot named Jeepers that looks like a black and white tuxedo cat. Granted, Jeepers has several duties around Forbes’s house, but his most important one is to keep Forbes from getting lonely. Keeping people entertained is a function that robots, and their ancestors the automata, have been performing for centuries.

The earliest automata were recorded in the third century B.C.E. They were often self propelled human figurines or animals. The early roboticists, mechanics, and clockmakers often made bird automata. There are famous preening peacocks, singing larks, and silver swimming swans. You can still see remnants of these early mechanical birds in modern cuckoo clocks.

The most amazing creations, though, were the mannequins that moved. Ancient engineers made metal beings who sang, served tea, drew elaborate pictures, wrote poems, and there was even one controversial one who supposedly played chess.

Here are some of my favorite automata:
  • The ancient Chinese artificer Yan Shi created a mechanical man who winked and flirted with court ladies.
  • The Muslim inventor Al-Jazari created a boat full of tiny musicians that entertained guests at parties.
  • Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook has plans for a knight that could sit up and wave its arms.
  • Mathematician Johannes Müller von Königsberg created an eagle made of iron that could fly.
  • The magician John Dee manufactured a wooden beetle that buzzed in the air of Elizabeth I’s court.
  • Inventor Jacques de Vaucanson’s Digesting Duck could eat and digest grain, leaving duck pellets behind.
  • Japanese engineer Hisashige Tanaka created little men who could draw and fire arrows at a target.
One automaton that has gotten a lot of press lately belongs to the Franklin Institute. They received the brass pieces of the automaton in 1928. The museum curators feared its entertaining days were over, but they carefully pieced it back together, unsure who had created the amazing little man. Finally, they put a pen in its hand and started the mechanism again for the first time in decades. The little man wrote a poem and signed it with the name of his creator, Henri Maillardet, the Swiss clockmaker, revealing it had been created around 1800. After so many centuries the little robot was still entertaining and amazing everyone who saw it.

I hope you'll be check out my story about a lonely roboticist and his robot companion that plays matchmaker in THE BREAK-INDreamspinner Press | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | All Romance ebooks

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