The First Robot Was a Steam-Powered Pigeon

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his "Daily Knowledge" newsletter, click here.

It's easy to assume that robots are a relatively recent invention—but in fact, the history of robotics stretches back well over 2000 years. The first, a steam-powered "pigeon," was created around 400 to 350 BCE by the ancient Greek mathematician Archytas.

Archytas constructed his robo-bird out of wood and used steam to power its movements. The bird, suspended from a pivot bar, was at one point able to fly about 200 meters before it ran out of steam—which makes Archytas' experiment not just the first known robot, but was also one of the first recorded instances of a scientist doing research on how birds fly.

The inventor was also a very accomplished philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, commander, statesman, and strategist. Archytas founded mathematical mechanics—what we now call mechanical engineering—and was an elected General for seven consecutive years. This violated the law at the time, but because Archytas never lost a single battle in his time as strategos, the people decided to continue to elect him as the ruler of their city-state anyway.

His mathematical works heavily influenced Plato and Euclid, among others. In geometry, he solved the problem of “doubling the cube,” as proposed by Hippocrates of Chios; he also made great advancements in musical theory, using mathematics to define intervals of pitch in the enharmonic scale in addition to those already known in the chromatic and diatonic scales. And he showed that pitch on a stringed instrument is related to vibrating air.

Archytas was known to be virtuous—so virtuous that his close friend Plato may have used him as his model for the “Philosopher King.” Archytas also seems to have strongly influenced Plato’s political philosophy as shown in “The Republic” and other works. For example, “How does a society obtain good rulers like Archytas, instead of bad ones like Dionysus II?”

Check out more interesting articles from Daven over at Today I Found Out and subscribe to his Daily Knowledge newsletter here.