Robotic inventions have fascinated, amazed, and helped humans for thousands of years. Here are seven of history’s greatest self-operating machines.
1. ARCHYTAS’S STEAM-POWERED PIGEON
Nobody knows who created history’s first robot, but some historians claim it was Archytas, an ancient Greek mathematician who constructed a steam-powered wooden pigeon between 400 and 350 BCE. The robotic bird could reportedly “fly” for more than 650 feet along a wire suspension line before running out of steam.
2. LEONARDO DA VINCI’S PROGRAMMABLE CART
One of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous inventions was a human-like robot resembling a Germanic knight, which Leonardo drew (and possibly built) around 1495. But years earlier, around 1478, the polymath envisioned a self-propelled cart that many experts now consider to be history’s first programmable automaton.
Instead of steam power or an internal combustion engine, the car-like vehicle was powered by a wound-up spring, and ran on clockwork. The cart’s operator could also make the wheels turn at specific points in time during a journey by placing pegs into small holes.
In 2004, Italian experts teamed up with computer designers, engineers, and carpenters to make a real-life model of Leonardo’s moving machine. Lo and behold, it operated as he originally intended. (Experts demonstrated a one-third scale replica of the cart, fearing a full-size replica of the powerful vehicle would crash and harm someone.)
3. THE MECHANICAL TURK
In 1770, inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen built the Mechanical Turk—a life-size, chess-playing automaton, clad in traditional Turkish garments—to entertain Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. There was just one catch: The machine was a fraud.
The Mechanical Turk sat at a wooden cabinet filled with cogs, gears, and other mechanisms, with a chessboard on top. More often than not, the automaton won a match, and it even traveled across Europe and America, playing against (and beating) luminaries like Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.
Naysayers suspected the machine didn’t operate independently, and they were right. Von Kempelen (and later, an engineer named Johann Maelzel, who purchased the Turk from Von Kempelen) recruited talented chess players who hid inside the Mechanical Turk’s cabinet and operated the Turk’s arm with levers. These gamers likely hid in the back of the wooden cabinet’s bottom drawer, so people examining the Turk’s inner workings couldn’t see them, and the gamers climbed into the Turk's main chamber right before the chess match began.
When Maelzel died, a man named John Kearsley Mitchell acquired the Turk and donated it to the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia. The automaton was destroyed in a fire in 1854, and three years later, Mitchell’s son, Silas, demystified the Turk’s inner workings in a series of articles for a chess magazine.
Even though the Mechanical Turk was an elaborate hoax, its existence still spurred important conversations about the nature of machines, and whether they could be designed to think—questions which inventors still grapple with today.
4. A ROBOT WITH REASONING CAPABILITIES
From 1966 through 1972, researchers at a top West Coast research institution developed the world’s first mobile robot with reasoning capabilities. By today’s standards, the robot looked primitive: Its movements were jerky, and it resembled a clunky stack of metal cabinets. Still, its capabilities were impressive: The bot could break down general commands into step-by-step actions to accomplish a goal, and it also came equipped with programs for seeing, reasoning, and acting. You could even “talk” to the robot by typing into a keyboard, and it would reply back.
In 1970, one popular magazine called the robot the world’s “first electronic person.” Today, it’s remembered as the device that helped pioneer modern robotics and AI technology.
5. A ROBOTIC FACTORY ARM
History’s first industrial robot was a 4000-pound mechanized factory arm, designed to reduce injuries among employees. In 1961, a major U.S. auto manufacturer added the technology to a New Jersey plant’s assembly line, where it took die castings from machines and performed welding on auto bodies. It ended up paving the way for other industrial robots that help make factory work easier, safer, and more efficient.
6. A ROBOT THAT EXPLORES THE OCEAN INDEPENDENTLY
The ocean is one of the last unexplored places on Earth —but thanks to advances in robotic technology, that’s sure to change. In 1995, America’s largest oceanographic research institution completed the first independently operating underwater robot, created to monitor large expanses of ocean for extended periods of time. The robot can collect samples, take photos and video, and survey bottom environments at depths of more than 1600 feet with sensors and tools.
7. THE FIRST ROBOT TO EXPLORE MARS
On July 4, 1997, the Mars Pathfinder’s Sojourner rover landed on Mars. The lightweight robot-on-wheels was programmed to explore the Red Planet for NASA—and more importantly, it was able to make its own decisions and respond accordingly to unpredictable encounters.
Sojourner took pictures of Mars, took chemical and atmospheric measurements, collected samples, and explored nearly 2700 square feet of the planet’s soil.
In all, Sojourner operated for 83 days before NASA flight teams lost contact with it— around 12 times longer than scientists expected. Today, the tiny machine is remembered as the first rover to explore outside the Earth-Moon system.