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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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A Juicy History of Steak-Umm
Steak-umm
Steak-umm

Eugene Gagliardi, patriarch of the Gagliardi meatpacking business, raised the 22-ounce frozen log of beef byproducts that would shortly become known as Steak-umm and sent it careening into his son’s ankle.

“Nobody is ever going to buy this sh*t!” he screamed, storming off.

"My dad was not supportive," Gene Gagliardi, whose Achilles tendon had been targeted, tells Mental Floss. "I decided to work on it at night."

The elder Gagliardi was not a man given to flights of fancy in the meat business, and now was not the time to try his patience with an experiment. It was the mid-1960s and his company was floundering, having lost some valuable accounts in recent months. What the younger Gagliardi had perceived to be a possible solution was, to his father, a joke. To Gene, it seemed like nothing could be done to please his father—not even his idea to revolutionize the frozen beef business by collecting scraps of unwanted meat and pressing it into a loaf.

The younger Gagliardi would eventually sell Steak-umm to Heinz for $20 million. He was one of the few who saw the potential for thinly-sliced steaks and refused to abandon the idea, even as his ankle throbbed.


Steak-umm Meats via YouTube

When Gagliardi was 6 years old, his father seated him on a pear crate, put a knife in his hand, and told him to start cutting. Chopping beef and poultry was the family business, and the Gagliardi clan—Eugene and his three sons, with Gene the middle child—were prominent meat merchants in the West Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania. There was no time to waste.

In the 1950s, the Gagliardis found success selling portion-controlled meat cuts long before commercial food manufacturers started peddling smaller serving sizes for dieters. They also curated premium slabs of beef and sold them to high-end clientele. When the fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s began to proliferate, the Gagliardis earned their business, too.

But by the 1960s, the laundry list of accounts had begun to dry up. Cheaper suppliers were becoming more abundant, and the personalized touch of Gagliardi Brothers was becoming less of a buying influence. With business slowing down, Gene Gagliardi would stay up late at night and think about how to bring his family’s finances back from the brink. That way, maybe his father would allow him to pursue his dream of being a park ranger in Montana.

One of those nights, the then-30-year-old identified a problem with the well-known Philly-style cheesesteaks. The chewy steak cuts were tough to handle for both children and senior citizens, and posed a bit of a choking risk across the board. Gagliardi thought a tender source of the beef would broaden the appeal of the cheesesteak and open it up to a larger market.

"It was tough cow meat back then," he says. "You had to be real careful about feeding it to kids because the meat would drag out of the sandwich. I thought, well, if you can homogenize milk, you should be able to homogenize meat."

Gagliardi thought he could soften up the meat by running it repeatedly through a meat grinder. "I did that about five times, extracting the protein out, and it became a solid mass. I couldn't slice it, so I froze it and then put it back in the fridge for four days to temperate it, then sliced it." Gagliardi had created a tender meat product that could be sold frozen and virtually eliminated the choking hazards of conventional Philly cheesesteaks.

(In a 2012 federal court ruling, a judge would articulate exactly what Gagliardi had done. "[The Steak-umm was] from chopped and formed emulsified meat product that is comprised of beef trimmings left over after an animal is slaughtered and all of the primary cuts, such as tenderloin, filet, and rib eye, are removed,” Judge Lawrence Stengel wrote. “The emulsified meat is pressed into a loaf and sliced, frozen, and packaged.")

Because the beef was so flat, it took only 30 seconds to cook each side. Gagliardi tasted it, found it delicious, and thought he’d solved his family’s problems.

His father was not a fan. After berating his son for even contemplating the idea, he begrudgingly allowed him to peddle it to supermarkets. Gagliardi offered to sell it below cost so stores would carry it. Marketed under the Gagliardi's frozen brand of Table Treats, the frozen meat slices debuted in 1969.

"We actually sold it to school lunch programs," Gagliardi says. "Kids ate it, loved it, then went home and asked for it."

Its eye-raising origins aside, shoppers seemed to embrace the product. It was quick to make—some college students even cooked the slices by wrapping them in foil and ironing them—tasty, and easy to chew. The company even distributed it with frozen rolls for a complete Philly cheesesteak experience. By 1975, Gagliardi was distributing them under the name Steak-umm after a friend suggested it during a quail hunting expedition. By 1980, he says, it was the best-selling frozen meat product in retailer freezers: "Competitors would try to pay off inspectors to find out how we did it."

While the Steak-umm name was trademarked, Gagliardi was unsuccessful in obtaining a patent for the process used to make them. He blamed confusion in filing the papers. "My brother was Mr. Thrifty and went to an attorney who had never filed for a patent before," he says.

Whatever the case, Steak-umm knock-offs became pervasive. When Heinz approached the brothers in 1980 with an offer of $20 million for the rights, it was an easy decision.

The marketing muscle of Heinz further endeared the Steak-umm brand to consumers. Heinz (via their Ore-Ida division) owned Steak-umm through 1994 before selling it back to Gagliardi and his newest venture, Designer Foods. All along, the butcher had been treating his kitchen like a lab, finding new ways to trim meats to maximize profitability for distributors. He wound up patenting several novel methods, including what would become KFC’s Popcorn Chicken in 1992.

Steak-umm changed hands once more in 2006, when Quaker Maid Meats purchased the company. In 2008, they entered into lengthy litigation with Steak ‘Em Up, a Philadelphia-based eatery that Quaker alleged was guilty of consumer confusion. A 2012 federal ruling was in favor of the defendant, who serves authentic Philly cheesesteaks and “thought it was a joke” that anyone could confuse them for the frozen alternative.

At 86, Gagliardi still toils at the butcher’s block, working on food innovation for his company, Creativators. Despite his numerous contributions to food service, he still feels slighted by his father, who passed away in 1991 and apparently never acknowledged his son’s success.

"I never got a compliment," he says.

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The Top 10 Science Stories of 2017
Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP/Getty Images
Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP/Getty Images

Scientific breakthroughs of 2017 truly spanned a gamut, manifesting themselves in nearly every discipline—cosmology, biology, and anthropology, to name a few. They ranged from astonishing revelations about Jupiter's famous rings to discovering a new continent on our own planet. Human cellular and embryonic sciences were in the limelight: Researchers fixed a disease-causing gene in human embryos in one experiment and grew human cells in pig embryos in another. Here on Earth, scientists achieved the first ever teleportation (of a particle). Far away, cosmic forces forged an enormous amount of gold, literally of galactic proportions—200 times the mass of our planet. Here are the top 10 most notable science stories of 2017.

1. WE FOUND SEVEN EARTH-LIKE PLANETS ORBITING A DIM STAR.

TRAPPIST-1 planetary system
NASA, Getty Images

We found not one but seven Earth-like planets, out of which three could potentially host life. Orbiting around a cool, dim star 39 light-years from us in the Trappist-1 system, these planets were detected through their eclipses—a brief dimming in their star's brightness when a planet passes in front of it. Although Trappist-1 looks more like Jupiter and its Galilean moons than our own solar system, its seven Earth-sized planets may have "terrestrial" conditions. Three of the planets are located in the habitable zone with their surface temperatures allowing for water oceans and an Earth-like atmosphere to form.

So far, most planet-hunting efforts were focused on brighter stars and bigger planets. Trappist-1 is the first planetary system found to revolve around a smaller, dimmer star—and its discovery holds the potential to uncover many more exoplanets.

2. WE CUT A DISEASE-CAUSING MUTATION FROM HUMAN GENES.

Scientists have successfully used a gene-editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9, to clip out a mutated gene in human embryos, replacing it with a healthy copy. Called MYBPC3, the defective gene causes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that can lead to sudden death in young people. While this was a stunning medical success, the CRISPR-Cas9 technique remains controversial among doctors, ethicists, and sociologists, who are concerned that attempts to build a better human could lead to dismal medical and social outcomes. When the study was published, an international committee of genetics experts issued a statement advising against editing any embryo intended for implantation into future mothers.

A different group of scientists managed to convert CRISPR into a fast, sensitive, and cheap diagnostic instrument for a range of diseases. Called SHERLOCK (for Specific High Sensitivity Enzymatic Reporter UnLOCKing), this method turns CRISPR into a tool that can sniff out specific genetic information, such as abnormal RNA. Surprisingly inexpensive, SHERLOCK can cost less than a buck per sample, and can hunt down the RNA of disease agents like dengue fever or Zika virus, and even search for mutations that can cause cancer.

3. THE LARSEN C ICE SHELF BROKE, BECOMING ONE OF THE LARGEST ICEBERGS EVER.

Larsen C ice shelf
ESA, Getty Images

A giant piece of ice the size of Delaware broke off the Larsen ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula, and is now adrift in the Weddell Sea. Weighting a trillion tons, it's one of the largest icebergs ever recorded.

Over the last few decades, the Larsen ice shelf went through major changes. The sections called Larsen A and B collapsed in 1995 and 2002. More recently, a rift along the Larsen C section was detected, and it grew slowly over two years—until it was hanging by a thread, and then finally split off.

The scientists say that while climate change is responsible for melting sea ice around the world, this particular fracture may have been inevitable. Ice shelves naturally break up as they extend further out into the ocean. Neither will the massive iceberg cause a sea level rise as it melts—the same way ice cubes melting in your gin and tonic do not increase the volume of water in that glass.

4. WE ACHIEVED TELEPORTATION (OF PHOTONS, AT LEAST).

Purely the stuff of science fiction until now, teleportation became possible this year. Although not yet able to teleport an entire human, Chinese scientists said they managed to teleport a photon particle from the ground to a satellite 870 miles away.

How does it work? Teleportation is transmitting the state of a thing rather than the thing itself. It's not unlike a fax machine, which sends information as various marks on a paper sheet rather than the sheet itself.

If you combine this idea with the concept of quantum entanglement, in which two particles are created at the same time and place, so they effectively have the same existence, you can shoot one of the particles far away, but they will remain entangled—meaning if one changes, its remote twin will change too. So it's not a Star Trek–type of teleportation, where you can transfer objects or people from one place to another, but more like having a doppelganger tethered to you far away.

Instead of sending marks on a paper sheet to a receiving-end fax machine, the Chinese scientists transmitted a bunch of photons. The team created 4000 pairs of quantum-entangled photons and fired one photon from each pair in a beam of light towards a satellite that can detect the quantum states of these single photons sent from the ground.

So why all the excitement if we still can't teleport people? For one thing, quantum teleportation offers possibilities of creating un-hackable communications networks. Any attempts to eavesdrop on a quantum system or intercept the info being sent would cause detectable disturbances.

5. WE DISCOVERED A WHOLE NEW CONTINENT.

You'd think Earth was completely mapped out by now, but this year, an international team of scientists discovered an entirely new continent down under. Called Zealandia, this eighth continent broke off Australia millions of years ago, containing New Zealand and New Caledonia, an island further up north. More than 90 percent of Zealandia is underwater, which is why it managed to evade geographers for so long.

The team drilled cores 4000 feet underwater and gathered more than 8000 rock and sediment samples and several hundred fossils. They discovered microscopic remains of organisms that lived in warm, shallow seas as well as spores and pollen from terrestrial plants, revealing that in the past parts of Zealandia used to be above sea level.

Besides their historical importance, these findings will help us understand the planet's future prospects. The fossilized records of Zealandia's past will provide more insight into the movement of Earth's tectonic plates and the global climate system, and contribute to the computer models used to predict future climate flukes.

6. WE FOUND A MYSTERIOUS VOID IN THE GREAT PYRAMID OF GIZA.

Using a new type of tomography that employs subatomic particles called muons, scientists generated 3D images of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, the biggest in Egypt. The images, generated as part of the ScanPyramids project, an international endeavor launched in 2015, revealed a surprising void, suggesting an inner structure.

Despite being studied for more than a century, the Great Pyramid of Giza, built more than 4500 years ago as a burial place of pharaoh Khufu (a.k.a. Cheops), is still full of mysteries waiting to be discovered. Muons, which are byproducts of cosmic rays, pass through stones better than x-rays or other similar technology do, so they work very well for peeking inside the inaccessible ancient structures. According to the images, the void is at least 100 feet long and bears a structural resemblance to the section directly below it—the pyramid's Grand Gallery, a long area that feels like a "very big cathedral at the center of the monument," as engineer and ScanPyramids co-founder Mehdi Tayoubi described it. The discovery marks the first time a new inner structure has been located in the pyramid since the 19th century.

7. WE GREW HUMAN CELLS IN PIGS.

baby piglet
iStock

Researchers from the Salk Institute successfully managed to grow human cells inside pig embryos. The goal was to better understand how to develop functional and transplantable tissue or organs.

The project actually consisted of two parts. During the first part, researchers created a cross between a rat and a mouse by implanting rat cells into mouse embryos. During the second part, the team used the same technique with human cells and non-human animal hosts—such as cows or pigs, since their organs are closer in size to our own. The second feat was harder to achieve since people and pigs are further apart from each other than mice and rats are, and pig embryos develop faster than human ones.

While the experiment was successful, the technology remains very controversial, as many experts fear it could potentially lead to human-animal chimeras.

8. WE WERE WRONG ABOUT JUPITER AND SENT CASSINI ON A SUICIDE MISSION TO SATURN.

The Juno mission aimed at exploring Jupiter, which reached the target in 2016, proved that much of what we thought we knew about this planet is wrong. Turns out Jupiter's famous bands do not continue to the north and south poles. Instead, the poles are characterized by chaotic swirls and ovular features, which are Texas-sized ammonia cyclones. Ammonia, which emanates from Jupiter's great depths, plays a role in the planet's atmosphere and weather, but its levels vary greatly between different areas. Scientists still don't know whether Jupiter has a core, but they know that the pressure inside the gas giant is so strong that hydrogen, which normally is a gas, has been squeezed into a metallic fluid. The other mystery Juno may help shed some light on is Jupiter's magnetosphere, which generates spectacular auroras that are different in nature from Earth's Northern Lights.

In September, scientists deliberately sacrificed the Cassini spacecraft, which ran out of fuel after decades-long exploration of our other cosmic neighbor, Saturn. Launched in 1997 and reaching its target seven years later, Cassini tremendously expanded our knowledge about Saturn, its satellites, and our entire solar system. Thanks to Cassini, we assessed the composition of Saturn's rings and discovered that it has six moons. More interestingly, it expanded our assumptions about the habitable planets' range. We learned that a moon named Titan holds methane lakes, which could harbor a different form of life, and may have subsurface water oceans, possibly with hydrothermal vents akin to those in the Earth's undersea crusts. Now that Cassini's mission is over, all eyes are on Juno.

9. WE WATCHED TWO NEURON STARS COLLIDE AND SPEW ENOUGH GOLD TO MAKE 200 EARTHS.

Astronomers watched a never-before-witnessed cosmic phenomenon: two dead stars merging into one. It was a head-on collision of two neutron stars, which are superdense remains of previously exploded stars.

As the two stars smashed into each other in a distant galaxy 130 million light-years from Earth, they emitted gravitational waves which began traveling outward like ripples on a pond. When the waves began their cosmic journey 130 million years ago, Earth was still ruled by dinosaurs, and the complex equipment necessary to observe this phenomenon didn't exist. However, the existence of such waves was predicted by Einstein, so by the time they reached Earth, the scientists were ready with their detectors—two in the United States and one in Italy.

Moments after the detectors noticed the waves, advanced space telescopes registered a high-energy light burst. Hours later, astronomers spotted a bright new point up in the sky, emitting infrared and ultraviolet light, followed by x-rays and radio waves days later. These observations informed scientists about a "kilonova" hypothesis, which postulates that neutron star collisions generate and spew out heavy elements like gold, silver, platinum, and uranium. The blast is believed to have created some 200 Earth-masses of gold, scientists say.

10. WE DISCOVERED HUMANS ARE 100,000 YEARS OLDER THAN WE THOUGHT.

facial reconstruction of 300,000-year-old skull found in Morocco
Gunz et al. in Nature, 2017

Until this year, modern humans were thought to have originated between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, according to the oldest-known fossils of Homo sapiens found in Ethiopia. But recently unearthed remains of five early H. sapiens were dated at 300,000 years old, making our species 100,000 years older than we thought.

The new fossils were found in Morocco, on the other side of the African continent and further north than Ethiopia. Researchers now think that our ancestors may not have originated in any one specific spot in Africa, but rather evolved across the entire continent.

Before the Sahara became a desert, it sprouted forests and plains, making it possible for early humans to travel across the continent. The early hominids were likely following and hunting herds of gazelles or other animals, evolving new cognitive skills along the way, which enabled them to create more complex tools and develop advanced social behaviors. So as they spread across Africa, these early humans acquired the very traits that later came to define our species.

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