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8 Amazing Automatons & the Minds Behind Them

Since the Greeks first told the myth of Pygmalion, who wished the statue he loved would come to life, it seems man has been trying to build a perfect replica of himself. Some would say we're getting closer to that possibility as computer technologies evolve and the first attempts at artificial intelligence are developed. However, the same thing was said centuries ago when clockmakers—using little more than gears, springs, cams, and levers—built complex machines, known as automatons, that could mimic the actions of humans to a startling degree. Here are just some of these early androids (and even one duck) that convinced much of the world that the robopocalypse was just around the corner.

The Three Automatons

Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and their business partner Jean-Frederic Leschot were Swiss watchmakers of exceptional talent who sold timepieces to some of the richest noblemen in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s. But their reputation didn't always proceed them, so they created "The Three Automatons" between 1768 and 1774, and toured with them to entertain and impress prospective clients. After touring for a decade, the three automatons were eventually sold for 75'000 francs to the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire in Neuchatel, Switzerland, where they are still displayed and operated to this day.

The first is The Draughtsman, a young boy made from about 2000 parts that is capable of drawing pictures with the graphite pencil in his hand. His drawings, including a dog, a dancing nobleman and woman, Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly, and a portrait of King Louis XV, are directed by a series of cams—rotating metal disks that move levers at a predetermined time and direction. As if that wasn't impressive enough, his eyes follow his hand as it draws, he sometimes shifts in his chair, and he even occasionally picks up the pencil to blow graphite dust from the page.

The Musician is a female automaton, made using approximately 2500 parts, that can play five different songs on her custom-made organ. Although it would be easy to fake this effect by having a music box play under her while her hands simply hovered over the keys, the watchmakers have her actually play the piano, striking the keys with her independently moving fingers to produce the correct notes. While she plays, her head and eyes move to follow her hands, her chest expands as she "breathes," and she even gives a polite bow between each song.

With around 6000 parts, the Writer is not only the most complex of the trio, but it also perhaps the most astonishing in that he can be "programmed" to write a custom phrase up to 40 characters long, including appropriate spaces between words. However, the phrase he is currently set to write—"Les automates / Jaquet Droz / a neuchatel"—has not been altered in quite some time since it takes about eight hours to change. Like the Draughtsman, the Writer's eyes also follow along as he writes, and he even dips his quill into a nearby inkwell, shaking it off just before writing so as not to drip on the page.

Japan's Gadget Wizard

The Japanese fascination with robots goes back to the late 15th century when religious stage productions featuring small, clockwork actors entertained followers in elaborate outdoors festivals. Eventually, these karakuri (Japanese for "gadget") made their way into the home and became novelties, similar to our mechanical banks here in the West, only much more sophisticated.

Perhaps the most celebrated designer of these domestic karakuri was Hisashige Tanaka, also known as Karakuri Giemon ("The Gadget Wizard"). At the age of 20 in 1819, Tanaka was already designing and building karakuri like Mojikaki ningyo (The Calligraphy Doll), a young man that could write four Chinese characters with brush and ink. While there were other writing karakuri at the time, Tanaka's was the only one that moved with such fluid, life-like movements. Tanaka's best-known automaton, though, was Yumihiki-doji (The Archer Doll). This automaton was a young boy, dressed in an exquisite kimono, sitting on a platform with a bow in his hand, next to a quiver of arrows. Upon activation, he would calmly reach over and take the first arrow, nock it to the bowstring, pull back his bow, and fire, hitting a separate target some distance away. (Below, The Calligraphy Doll is shown on the left; the Archer Doll is on the right.)

While these gadgets were incredible, Tanaka earned his other nickname, The Thomas Edison of Japan, by introducing many new technologies to his countrymen. Among his most famous inventions is the first Japanese steam engine, built mainly using a Dutch reference manual, followed shortly by the first steam-powered warship. He also went on to found the first telegraph equipment company in Japan, which would later become the global corporation known as Toshiba.

The Digesting Duck

Plagued with digestive problems for much of his life, Jacques de Vaucanson used automatons to not only entertain, but also to help further the understanding of bodily functions. His fascination with mechanical men started at a young age when he built a group of androids that were able to serve dinner and clear the table as a special treat for a church dignitary visiting the monastery Vaucanson attended for school. While the dignitary was first impressed by the machines, he later called them profane and ordered Vaucanson's workshop be destroyed. Not surprisingly, Vaucanson soon left the order and struck out on his own to continue his research into the combination of man and machine.

The first automaton that really put him on the map was The Flute Player, built in 1738. Not only was the figure unusually tall—life-sized at 5'6"—but it could actually play its instrument. Nine bellows hooked to three separate pipes leading up into the chest, all joined together to make a central pipe that was connected at the mouth, actually "breathed" into the flute. The three sets of bellows even had specially calibrated weights attached to help produce the correct amount of air needed to create dramatic changes in volume. Furthermore, the lips could open and close, and move backwards and forwards, to apply different positions to the flute to provide even more personality to the tune. Finally, thin leather encased seven independently moving fingers that covered the correct holes to play the 12 songs it knew.

But Vaucanson's masterpiece, the perfect combination of his fascination with bodily functions and mechanical life, was The Digesting Duck. Built in 1739, the duck was an automaton perched atop a tall pedestal; it could splash in water, quack, open and close its wings, and, when a grain of barley was offered by a human hand, could stretch out its neck and take the seed. It would then swallow the barley and, a few moments later, expel what appeared to be the digested seed out its backside. While there are some who believe this was a trick—there was a second chamber in the duck's bowels that was filled with compressed grass clippings—others believed the duck truly did digest its meals.

Only a few years later, Vaucanson sold off his automatons to focus on his new career as the head of silk production for King Louis XV, a production he revolutionized thanks to his design for a mechanical loom. Sadly, this career change means the fate of his automatons have been lost to history. There are occasionally some Digesting Ducks that crop up with owners claiming them to be the genuine item, but upon examination they are found to be clever copies by contemporaries of Vaucanson. The original Duck is probably gone forever.

Here's a video of a copy of the Digesting Duck to give you some idea of how it might have worked:

"Monkbot"

In 1562, 17-year-old Don Carlos, the heir apparent to King Philip II's throne, fell down a flight of stairs and sustained a severe head injury. Bed-ridden for months, the young man suffered seizures and brain swelling and was even struck blind before finally falling into a coma. Philip II called in the best doctors from across the country, who offered up the best-known remedies of the day. Nothing worked, and it appeared the young prince would die.

Desperate, Philip called for a monk named Diego de Alcala (who would later be the namesake of San Diego, California). This was an unusual request, since Diego had been dead for about 100 years. However, it was believed that this holy man's corpse could perform healing miracles, so Philip decided it was worth a try. When they laid the monk's body in the bed next to Don Carlos, Philip asked God for a miracle and, in exchange, promised to perform a miracle of his own in God's honor. The next morning, Don Carlos woke up, reporting that a monk had come into the room and spoken to him in the night, assuring him that he would recover.

To honor his agreement with God, Philip commissioned a renowned clockmaker, Juanelo Turriano, to create a wind-up automaton in the form of Saint Diego. The 15-inches-tall wood and iron android in a cloth robe could walk, turn and bow its head, raise a cross in one hand, beat its chest with the other, while the mouth opened and closed as though saying "mea culpa."

It's arguable if this was, in fact, a miracle, rather than just good old human ingenuity. But what is a miracle is that the Monkbot has survived. It has been stored at the Smithsonian Institute since 1977, though it rarely makes public appearances anymore. Unfortunately, Don Carlos' fate was not as cheery. Despite waking up and seeming to make a full recovery, the head injury changed the already ill-tempered prince for the worst. Carlos became completely mentally unstable, to the point where his own father locked him away six years later; he died in solitary confinement.

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Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress // Public Domain
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10 Inspiring Facts About George Washington Carver
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Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Botanist and inventor George Washington Carver was born into slavery and died as a scientific advisor to presidents and titans of industry. What happened in between was no less extraordinary.

1. HIS FIRST YEARS OF LIFE WERE TRAUMATIC.

The baby boy born to Mary and Giles, two slaves in the household of Moses and Susan Carver, in the 1860s would see tragedy before he turned two. Raiders entered the Carvers' Missouri farm and abducted Mary, her infant son George, and his sister. The Carvers’ agent searched long and hard and eventually recovered George, but Mary and the little girl were lost.

When the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, the Carvers decided to adopt George and his brother and raise them as their own.

2. EDUCATION WAS IMPORTANT TO GEORGE FROM THE BEGINNING.

Susan Carver taught George to read. As he got older, she encouraged him to learn all he could. Local schools wouldn’t accept black students, so the teenage boy began traveling from classroom to classroom, exploring new subjects and eventually graduating from high school. It was in one of these schoolrooms that the boy known all his life as “Carver’s George” started calling himself George Carver instead.

3. IT WAS ALSO HARD-WON.

Colleges were as reluctant as primary schools to enroll black students. Initially accepted to Highland College in Kansas, Carver was uninvited once administrators learned of his ancestry. Undaunted, Carver decided to create his own research facility instead. He homesteaded a claim and started collecting geological samples, conducting botany experiments, and studying fine art, all on his own.

4. HIS DETERMINATION PAID OFF.

Carver’s intelligence and accomplishments were undeniable. He was admitted to Simpson College in Iowa to study art and music. His beautiful drawings of plants prompted a teacher to recommend him to the Iowa State Agricultural College. The next year, Carver became Iowa State’s first black student.

Carver thrived in academia, and completed his bachelor’s degree with his thesis, "Plants as Modified by Man," in 1894. Thrilled by the young scientist’s potential, his advisors pushed him to continue, and Carver eventually earned his master’s degree after studying plant pathology and mycology. He established his reputation as a leading botanist while teaching at his alma mater.

5. HE EARNED HIMSELF A PRETTY AWESOME JOB.

Word of Carver’s brilliance and creativity spread. Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University), personally invited Carver to lead its agricultural department in 1896. Washington was so determined to snag Carver’s bright mind for his school that he offered a fine lab, a high salary, and a two-room apartment. This didn’t go over well with the other faculty, who had to share rooms, but Washington believed the perks were justified by Carver's accomplishments and degree from a university that didn't usually accept African-Americans.

6. HIS MIND JUST WOULD NOT QUIT.

Detail of a painting of George Washington Carver tending a flowering plant.
Painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Carver flourished at Tuskegee. His research, while ground-breaking, was also practical: Carver was always looking for ways to help American farmers get more from their crops. As the boll weevil decimated southern cotton crops, Carver and his students began investigating uses for newer plants like sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and, of course, peanuts. In his tenure at the institute, Carver would invent more than 300 uses for peanuts alone, including chili sauce, shampoo, and glue.

7. HE’S NOT THE PEANUT BUTTER GUY.

Ironically, Carver’s best-known creation wasn’t actually his. The diets of ancient Aztec and Inca peoples included peanuts ground into a paste. Modern peanut butter can be traced back to three inventors: Marcellus Gilmore Edson, who patented peanut paste; John Harvey Kellogg of cereal fame, who created a peanut butter-making process; and Ambrose Straub, who built a peanut butter-making machine. Carver’s efforts did help popularize peanut butter, but he didn’t claim credit.

8. HE WAS APPRECIATED AS A GENIUS IN HIS OWN TIME.

Peanut butter or no, Carver’s expertise was legendary. He advised Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin D. Roosevelt on agricultural concerns, and testified before Congress in support of a peanut import tax. The Crown Prince of Sweden traveled to the U.S. to study under Carver. The scientist even shared his agricultural and nutrition expertise with Mahatma Gandhi.

His innovative mind attracted the admiration and friendship of automotive pioneer Henry Ford. The two thinkers spent several years collaborating, looking for ways to turn plants into power and military equipment. They invented peanut rubber for cannons and made progress toward soybean and peanut substitutes for gasoline.

9. HE STAYED GROUNDED.

Carver never lost sight of what mattered to him most: using his mind to help those in need. He published a long series of easy-to-read bulletins for farmers, providing tips to maximize their yield and creative uses for their crops. He even took the show on the road, driving a wagon through farm country to spread the word about sustainable farming practices that could help poor farmers survive.

10. HIS WORK CHANGED THE WORLD.

Of Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “From oppressive and crippling surroundings, George Washington Carver lifted his searching, creative mind to the ordinary peanut, and found therein extraordinary possibilities for goods and products unthinkable by minds of the past, and left for succeeding generations an inspiring example of how an individual could rise above the paralyzing conditions of circumstance.”

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10 Surprising Facts about Alexander Graham Bell
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Getty Images

Alexander Graham Bell may have been born in Scotland and become an American citizen, but he called Nova Scotia, Canada home for the last few decades of his life. By the time Bell was 38, he was living in Washington, D.C. and involved in endless draining lawsuits concerning patents over the telephone. He came across a book by Charles Dudley Warner called Baddeck and That Sort of Thing, which described the small fishing village of Baddeck in Nova Scotia as “the most beautiful saltwater lake I have even seen … its embracing hills, casting a shadow from its wooded islands … here was an enchanting vision.” After reading that description, Bell moved there with his wife and two children. He made the idyllic Canadian village his home for nearly 40 years, until his death.

1. BELL’S FIRST PASSION WAS HELPING THE DEAF.

Alexander Graham Bell and his family
Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, and two of their children
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Alexander Graham Bell’s primary focus was on helping deaf students communicate. His grandfather had been an elocutionist, and his father, Melville, developed a system called Visible Speech, a collection of written symbols designed to help the deaf while speaking. (Melville was name-checked in George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Pygmalion, and is thought to be a possible basis for Professor Higgins.) Both Alexander Graham Bell’s mother and wife were deaf, and became the inspiration for his work. In 1872, when he was 25, he opened a “School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” in Boston.

2. THE TELEPHONE WAS INVENTED FOR LOVE

Luke Spencer

One of Bell’s pupils was Mabel Hubbard, the daughter of a wealthy Massachusetts family, with whom he fell in love. Her father, lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society, opposed the marriage due to Bell’s poor finances. But only a few days after establishing the Bell Telephone Company and securing his fortune, Bell married Mabel. For a wedding present, he gave her all but ten of his 1507 shares in the company. On his desk in his study at Baddeck, Bell kept a photograph of his beloved Mabel; written on the back, in his own hand, it says: “the girl for whom the telephone was invented.”

3. THE FIRST TELEPHONE MESSAGE MAY HAVE BEEN A CALL FOR HELP.

It was while experimenting with acoustic telegraphy alongside his assistant Thomas Watson, a machinist, that Bell invented the telephone. On the evening of March 10, 1876, with a receiver set up in Watson’s room and the prototype transmitter in his own room down the hallway, Bell uttered the first words sent down a telephone wire: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” As Watson recalled, “I rushed down the hall … and found he had upset the acid of a battery over his clothes … his shout for help that night … doesn’t make as pretty a story as did the first sentence ‘What Hath God Wrought’ which Morse sent over his new telegraph ... 30 years before, but it was an emergency call.”

However, according to Watson’s great-granddaughter Susan Cheever, the acid was an invention of Watson’s 50 years after the fact. To make her case, she quotes a letter from Watson soon after the momentous call, in which he said, “[T]here was little of dramatic interest in the occasion.”

Bell's patent 174,465 was filed with the U.S. Patent Office at almost the same time as another engineer, Elisha Gray, filed a caveat (a document saying he was going to file for a patent in three months) for a similar invention. That sparked one of more than 500 various lawsuits over the telephone—all of which were unsuccessful.

4. BELL PIONEERED WHAT WOULD BECOME CASSETTE TAPES, FLOPPY DISCS, AND FIBER OPTICS.

In 1880, the French government awarded Bell 50,000 francs for the invention of the telephone. With the prize money he founded the Volta Laboratory, dedicated to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.”

Of the 18 patents held by Bell alone, and the 12 he shared with collaborators, many related to improving the lives of deaf people. Bell considered once such patent, the photophone, the “greatest invention I have ever made, greater than the telephone.” The photophone was designed for optical wireless communication, which was quite a feat for 1880. Bell and an assistant, Charles Summer Tainter, transmitted a wireless voice message by light beam over a distance of 200 meters from a school roof to their laboratory—a precursor to fiber-optics one hundred years later

They are also said to have attempted to impress magnetic fields as a way of reproducing sound. Although they abandoned the idea after failing to produce a workable prototype, Bell had in fact been pioneering the principle that would one day become the tape recorder and the computer floppy disc. One of their improvements to the gramophone was patented under the Volta Graphophone Company, which would one day evolve into Columbia Records and Dictaphone.

5. HE ALSO INVENTED THE WORLD’S FASTEST SPEEDBOAT …

After becoming interested in hydroplanes, Bell sketched out an early model of what would become known as a hydrofoil boat. Along with aviation pioneer Frederick “Casey” Baldwin, Bell began building and testing what they called the HD-4 in the laboratory at Baddeck. On the Bras d’Or lake outside Bell’s home, the boat set the world speed record of 70.86 mph on September 9, 1919. The remnants of the world’s fastest boat can still be seen at the Alexander Graham Bell Historic site and museum in Baddeck.

6. … AND HELPED OUT WITH CANADA’S FIRST CONTROLLED PLANE.

The Bras d’Or lake also saw another milestone in Canadian history, when the AEA Silver Dart, one of the earliest aircraft, made the first powered flight in Canada in February 1909. As early as 1892, Bell had been developing motor-powered aircraft, and had done extensive experiments with tetrahedron kites. Under Bell’s guidance, co-designer John McCurdy managed to fly the Silver Dart a half-mile over Nova Scotia. A few weeks later, after more tinkering in Bell’s workshops, the flight managed more than 22 miles. By the summer of 1909, the Silver Dart carried the first-ever passenger in Canadian airspace.

7. HE WAS HELPFUL TO NEIGHBORS.

Alexander Graham Bell with family and friends
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There is a local story told in Baddeck of how, one day soon after moving to the town, Bell was walking along the main street and saw the editor of the local newspaper having problems with his wall-mounted telephone. Bell walked in and promptly unscrewed the earpiece, revealing a trapped fly, which he blew out of it. The astonished newspaper editor asked how the stranger had known how to fix the newfangled invention, to which Bell replied, “because I am the inventor of that instrument.”

8. HE INVENTED A METAL DETECTOR TO SAVE A PRESIDENT’S LIFE.

A metal detector like the one Bell invented, on display at the Bell Historic Site in Baddeck.
Luke Spencer

The first known use of the metal detector was not for beachcombing or gold prospecting, but rather as an attempt to save the life of a U.S. President. James Garfield had been shot at the Baltimore & Potomac Railway station in July 1881 by Charles J. Guiteau. The bullet was lodged somewhere in the president’s back and couldn’t be located by the attending doctors. Alexander Graham Bell, a visitor to the stricken Garfield, quickly developed a metal detector with the purpose of finding the bullet. Inspired by French inventor Gustave Trouvé’s earlier handheld device, Bell built a device based on electromagnetics. Unfortunately, the metal springs in the mattress Garfield was lying on confused the detector—or so Bell would later claim—and the 20th president of the United States died of an infection in the wound that September.

9. YOU CAN ALSO THANK HIM FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE.

The National Geographic magazine as we know it today was largely the brainchild of Alexander Graham Bell. Under his father-in-law, the exclusive society’s first president, the prestigious club house in Washington D.C. was struggling. Membership was dwindling to just under a thousand people when Bell was elected its second president. He immediately set to work to revitalize the society, and in particular its journal, which, according to Bell, “everyone put on his library shelf and few people read.”

Bell relaunched the journal with a new slogan, “The World And All That Is In It.” He promoted illustrations and good photography, introducing “pictures of life and action … pictures that tell a story.”

10. AFTER HIS DEATH, THE PHONE COMPANIES PAID TRIBUTE.

Alexander Graham Bell died in his adopted home of Nova Scotia on August 2, 1922, with his beloved Mabel by his side. It’s a common custom to hold a minute’s silence when someone of note has passed away, but for Alexander Graham Bell, a remarkable tribute took place after his funeral. Every phone in North America was silenced for a minute in “honor of the man who had given to mankind the means for direct communication at a distance.”

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