Robots through history, in short

First allusions regarding the attempt to build humanoid robots swing between legend and reality. One of the first references is found in a story from the Daoist Chinese manuscript Liezi (aprox. 5th BC) in which Yan Shi, called the “artificer”, creates an artificial man and demonstrates it to the king Mu of Zhou Dynasty. In the Greek mythology, Hephaestus, the god of craftsmen, artisans, and fire, created metal automatons and gold maids to work for him. Hephaestus also created Talos, a giant made of bronze, to protect Crete from invaders. Also, it is said that in the 6th century BC, the Greek inventor Daedalus created quicksilver statues that were able to walk. And, in the Metamorphoses, Ovid narrates the story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who fell in love with the statue he had carved, Galatea, which came to live.

Already in the 12th century, Al-Jazari, a Muslim polymath, built drink-serving and hand-washing humanoid servants, a musical robot band, and a peacock fountain with humanoids that offered soap and towels.

But perhaps one of the most famous humanoid in history is Leonardo’s robot, looking like an armored knight, designed by Leonardo da Vinci around 1495.

In the 18th century, Jacques de Vaucanson built three famous automatas in France: The Flute Player, The Tambourine Player, and the Digesting Duck.

In the late nineteen-forties, a British robotician named William Grey Walter created the first “turtle” robots Elmer and Elsie, autonomous machines that mimicked life-like behavior with very simple circuitry. And, in the early nineteen-sixties, Unimate, the first industrial robot, was installed in a General Motors automobile factory in New Jersey.

Since then, robot implementation has been exponentially growing. The industrial sector is perhaps where robots have been more massively implemented so far. The introduction of service robots for professional, domestic, and entertainment purposes is progressively increasing in the last decades.

Dreaming of bad and good robots is still undeniably part of our social imaginary, as many examples in cinema and literature show. Emblematic robot’s appearances in films go from the female robot in Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis (1926) to C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars. In literature, Isaac Asimov’s science fiction stories about robots have captivated millions of readers and inspired several films such as I, Robot. 

Perhaps things have not changed as much as we might think since the time of Hephaestus or Leonardo. Robots still fascinate humankind and will likely continue to do so.

Cite this article:

Aymerich-Franch, L.(2016, January 30). Robots through history, in short. Retrieved from:

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