CLOSE

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Slice of Sauce
arrow
Food
This Ketchup Will be Sold by the Slice
Slice of Sauce
Slice of Sauce

Some have called it a food abomination. Others believe it will be the next big thing in food disruption. It’s ketchup taken out of its customary bottle or squeeze packet and distributed via cheese-like slices. And it may be coming to a store near you.

Slice of Sauce slices appear on a cutting board
Slice of Sauce

In March 2018, a company called Bo’s Fine Foods organized a Kickstarter for Slice of Sauce, a new—and highly controversial—method of packaging the condiment. Each retail pouch will contain eight “slices” of dried ketchup that Bo’s argues has several advantages over the bottled version. The ketchup won’t soak a piece of bread or sputter out in watery blasts: Consumers will get an even application of it every time, with the ketchup distributed equally among each bite. Each slice has 30 calories and 5 grams of sugar, with no high-fructose corn syrup or preservatives.  

As Vice pointed out, the idea is similar to chef Ernesto Uchimura’s “ketchup leather,” a novelty food hack he created in 2014.

While Slice of Sauce may help prevent apparel-related squirting mishaps, it’s not entirely clear whether people will embrace this rogue approach to dispensing tomato paste. The idea of freezing and then serving slices of peanut butter was met with scorn in 2017. Today reports that some Twitter critics have refused to acknowledge a “ketchup fruit roll-up” while others promise to “make a huge scene” if confronted with it while dining out. We’ll see if Slice of Sauce can dispense some unconventional success when it starts shipping to Kickstarter backers and select retail stores in June.

[h/t Today]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Lists
19 Things You Might Not Know Were Invented by Women
iStock
iStock

Necessity isn't the only mother of invention. Though it wasn't always easy to get patents or the credit they deserved, women are responsible for many items we use today.

1. THE PAPER BAG

paper bag with groceries
iStock

America got a brand new paper bag when cotton mill worker Margaret Knight invented a machine to make them with a flat square bottom in 1868. (Paper bags originally looked more like envelopes.) A man named Charles Annan saw her design and tried to patent the idea first. Knight filed a lawsuit and won the patent fair and square in 1871.

2. KEVLAR

Kevlar material
iStock

Lightweight, high-tensile Kevlar—five times stronger than steel—will take a bullet for you. DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek accidentally invented it while trying to perfect a lighter fiber for car tires and earned a patent in 1966.

3. THE FOOT-PEDAL TRASH CAN

foot-pedal trash can
iStock

Lillian Gilbreth improved existing inventions with small, but ingenious, tweaks. In the early 1900s, she designed the shelves inside refrigerator doors, made the can opener easier to use, and tidied up cleaning with a foot pedal trash can. Gilbreth is most famous for her pioneering work in efficiency management and ergonomics with her husband, Frank. Two of their 12 children, Frank Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth, humorously wrote about their home/work collaborations in the book Cheaper by the Dozen.

4. MONOPOLY

Monopoly game
iStock

Elizabeth Magie created The Landlord's Game to spread the economic theory of Georgism—teaching players about the unfairness of land-grabbing, the disadvantages of renting, and the need for a single land value tax on owners. Fun stuff! Magie patented the board game in 1904 and self-published it in 1906. Nearly 30 years later, a man named Charles Darrow rejiggered the board design and message and sold it to Parker Brothers as Monopoly. The company bought Magie's patent for the original game for $500 and no royalties.

5. WINDSHIELD WIPERS

windshield wipers on red car
iStock

Drivers were skeptical when Mary Anderson invented the first manual windshield wipers in 1903. They thought it was safer to drive with rain and snow obscuring the road than to pull a lever to clear it. (Another woman inventor, Charlotte Bridgwood, invented an automatic version with an electric roller in 1917. It didn't take off, either.) But by the time Anderson's patent expired in 1920, windshield wipers were cleaning up. Cadillac was the first to include them in every car model, and other companies soon followed.

6. DISPOSABLE DIAPERS

disposable diaper
iStock

Marion Donovan didn't take all the mess out of diaper changing when she patented the waterproof "Boater" in 1951. But she changed parenting—and well, babies—forever. The waterproof diaper cover, originally made with a shower curtain, was first sold at Saks Fifth Avenue. Donovan sold the patent to the Keko Corporation for $1 million and then created an entirely disposable model a few years later. Pampers was born in 1961.

7. THE DISHWASHER

dishwasher
iStock

Patented in 1886, the first dishwasher combined high water pressure, a wheel, a boiler, and a wire rack like the ones still used for dish drying. Inventor Josephine Cochrane never used it herself, but it made life easier for her servants.

8. LIQUID PAPER

liquid paper
iStock

In the days before the delete key, secretary Bette Nesmith Graham secretly used white tempera paint to cover up her typing errors. She spent years perfecting the formula in her kitchen before patenting Liquid Paper in 1958. Gillette bought her company in 1979 for $47.5 million. And that's no typo.

9. ALPHABET BLOCKS

Alphabet blocks
iStock

Children don't read books by anti-suffrage author Adeline D.T. Whitney these days—and that's probably for the better. But the wooden blocks she patented in 1882 still help them learn their ABCs.

10. THE APGAR SCORE

Nurse holding newborn
iStock

Life is a series of tests, starting with the Apgar, named after obstetrical anesthesiologist Dr. Virginia Apgar. In 1952, she began testing newborns one minute and five minutes after birth to determine if they needed immediate care. About 10 years later, the medical community made a backronym—an acronym designed to fit an existing word—to remember the criteria scored: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration.

11. MARINE SIGNAL FLARES

marine signal flares
iStock

Communication between ships was once limited to colored flags, lanterns, and screaming things like "Thar she blows!" really loudly. Martha Coston didn't come up with the idea for signal flares all by herself. She found plans in a notebook that belonged to her late husband. The determined widow spent 10 years working with chemists and pyrotechnics experts to make the idea a reality. But she was only named administratrix in the 1859 patent—Mr. Coston got credited as the inventor.

12. THE CIRCULAR SAW

circular saw
iStock

A weaver named Tabitha Babbitt was the first to suggest that lumber workers use a circular saw instead of the two-man pit saw that only cut when pulled forward. She made a prototype and attached it to her spinning wheel in 1813. Babbitt's Shaker community didn't approve of filing a patent, but they took full advantage of the invention.

13. RETRACTABLE DOG LEASH

Dog on leash
iStock

New York City dog owner Mary A. Delaney patented the first retractable leading device in 1908. It attached to the collar, keeping pooches under control, while giving them some freedom to roam. Incidentally, someone named R.C. O'Connor patented the first child harness 11 years later. Coincidence? Maybe.

14. SUBMARINE TELESCOPE AND LAMP

telescope
iStock

It's difficult to find any in-depth information about early inventor Sarah Mather. Her combination telescope and lamp for submarines, patented in 1845, speaks for itself.

15. FOLDING CABINET BED

folding bed
iStock

Sarah E. Goode's folding cabinet bed didn't just maximize space in small homes. In 1885, it made her the first African-American woman with a U.S. patent. The fully functional desk could be used by day and then folded down for a good night's sleep. The Murphy bed came along some 15 years later.

16. THE SOLAR HOUSE

solar panels
iStock

Biophysicist Maria Telkes's place was in the house—the very first 100 percent solar house. In 1947, the Hungarian scientist invented the thermoelectric power generator to provide heat for Dover House, a wedge-shaped structure she conceived with architect Eleanor Raymond. Telkes used Glauber's salt, the sodium salt of sulfuric acid, to store heat in preparation for sunless days. Dover House survived nearly three Massachusetts winters before the system failed.

17. SCOTCHGARD

spaghetti spilled on floor
iStock

Apparently, it takes a stain to fight one. In 1952, 3M chemist Patsy Sherman was perplexed when some fluorochemical rubber spilled on a lab assistant's shoe and wouldn't come off. Without changing the color of the shoe, the stain repelled water, oil, and other liquids. Sherman and her co-inventor Samuel Smith called it Scotchgard. And the rest is ... preserving your couch.

18. INVISIBLE GLASS

camera lens
iStock

Katharine Blodgett, General Electric's first female scientist, discovered a way to transfer thin monomolecular coatings to glass and metals in 1935. The result: glass that eliminated glare and distortion, which revolutionized cameras, microscopes, eyeglasses, and more.

19. COMPUTERS

old computer
iStock

Women in computer science have a role model in Grace Hopper. She and Howard Aiken designed Harvard's Mark I computer, a five-ton, room-sized machine in 1944. Hopper invented the compiler that translated written language into computer code and coined the terms "bug" and "debugging" when she had to remove moths from the device. In 1959, Hopper was part of the team that developed COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios