The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog

Take a journey through the long history of robots, from the 4th Century BC to today.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
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Robots have fascinated and preoccupied human minds for centuries - from ancient tales of stone golems, to modern science fiction. Though the word "robot" was only officially penned in 1921 by Karel Čapek, mankind has endeavored to create autonomous machines since as far back as the 4th Century BCE.

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Today, robots are widely used across a variety of industries, aiding in the manufacturing of vehicles and more. According to the International Federation of Robotics, in 2015 there were as many as 1.63 million industrial robots in operation worldwide, and that number continues to grow steadily each year.

Here's a brief history of how robotics have evolved and grown from the early imaginings of 400 BCE, to the global resource they are today. 

Ancient Robots: Archytas' Pigeon, Ctesibius' Clepsydra, and More

The earliest beginnings of robotics can be traced back to Ancient Greece. Aristotle was one of the first great thinkers to consider automated tools, and how these tools would affect society at large.

It was in 400 BCE that the first automaton was designed by Archytas of Tarentum, who is today considered the father of mathematical mechanics. Archytas' Pigeon was a steam-powered autonomous flying machine. Its wooden structure was based on the anatomy of a pigeon, and contained an airtight boiler for the production of steam. The steam's pressure would eventually exceed the resistance of the structure, allowing the robotic bird to take flight.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

In 250 BCE, Ctesibius created a clepsydra, or water clock, sporting a number of elaborate automatons. Though water clocks had been in use for centuries at that point all over the world, it was during this period that Greek and Roman inventors began to update the basic designs of the clocks with features like bells, gongs, and moving figurines. Ctesibius' design allowed for the dropping of peddles onto a loud gong, effectively making it the first alarm clock as well as an example of early automaton design. 

But it wasn't just the ancient Greeks and Romans who were experimenting with robotics. There are accounts of automatons from ancient China, like a passage in Lie Zi from the 3rd Century BCE which describes a singing and dancing robot that performed for King Mu of Zhou. According to the text, the robot was built by an inventor named Yen Shih out of wood and leather.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: King muh/Wikimedia Commons

11th Century to the 15th Century: Humanoid Automatons and da Vinci's Knight

Development of autonomous technologies continued well into the 11th Century and beyond throughout the world. One of the most important inventors during this period was Ismail al-Jazari, an engineer and mathematician from the golden age of Islam. Al-Jazari is credited with the creation of segmental gears and is considered by many to be the father of robotics. Many of his robotic creations were powered by water, and included everything from automatic doors to a humanoid autonomous waitress who could refill drinks.

Al-Jazari's influence is particularly apparent in the later work of Leonardo da Vinci. In 1495 the famous Italian artist and painter designed an autonomous knight, which featured a series of pulleys and gears that allowed it to move its arms and jaw, as well as sit up. The humanoid robot was informed in many ways by da Vinci's own research on human anatomy, and was apparently used as entertainment at parties by da Vinci's patron, Lodovico Sforza.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: Erik Möller/Wikimedia Commons

16th Century to the 18th Century: Flying Robots and Musical Automatons

The creation of robots which were mainly designed for entertainment purposes became ever more popular between the 16th and 18th centuries. Though these automatons were created to entertain, it's important not to treat their designs flippantly. Many of the technologies used in these devices paved the way for more sophisticated machines later on.

One such creation was an iron eagle made by German mathematician Johannes Müller von Königsberg, AKA Regiomontanus. Not a great deal is known about the construction of Regiomontanus' eagle, apart from the fact that it was made of wood and iron sometime in the 1530s. In 1708 author John Wilkins wrote an account of the robot eagle, claiming it had flown to greet the Prussian emperor and returned to Regiomontanus. Von Königsberg is also credited as having created a robotic fly which was also capable of flight.

Another key figure of this time in the creation of entertaining and insutrial machines was Jacques de Vaucanson. In 1737 Vaucanson created The Flute Player - a life-sized humanoid automaton that could play up to 12 different songs on the flute. The automaton used a series of bellows to "breathe", and had a moving mouth and tongue that could vary the airflow, allowing it to play the instrument. 

Vaucanson's most memorable achievement, however, was his Digesting Duck. The duck was notable not only for being an amusing device that appeared to eat and poop, but also as it is often considered the first device to utilize rubber tubing. 

The 19th Century: Chess-Playing Machines and Early Experiments With Speech

The 19th Century saw the popularity of automatons as touring attractions and oddities, which would enchant and inspire audiences across the globe. A popular type of automaton at this time was the chess-playing robot. The most famous of these creations was The Turk, built by Wolfgang von Kempelen in the 1770s and which toured until 1854. Though it appeared as though The Turk could play chess, the device was revealed to be a fraud that was operated by a chess player concealed within its box.

Despite the elaborate ruse of The Turk, and the similar devices which appeared in its stead, the central conceit provided the inspiration for true chess-playing machines which would debut in the early 20th Century.

One remarkable machine from the 19th Century which most certainly was not a hoax, however, was the Euphonia - a speaking, singing robot which was operated through an early form of text-to-speech technology. Euphonia was created by Austrian mathematician and inventor, Joseph Faber. The machine featured a humanoid feminine face connected to a keyboard, where the face's lips, jaw, and tongue could be controlled. A bellows and ivory reed provided the machine's voice, and pitch and accent could be altered through a screw in the face's nose. 

Euphonia was the culmination of 25 years of work for Faber, and debuted to audiences in 1846. Sadly, Victorian audiences were too unsettled by the machine's blank stare and spooky, whispered voice and the device faded into obscurity.

The Early 20th Century: El Ajedrecista, Eric, and Gakutensoku

While The Turk was revealed as a fraud, the early 20th Century saw the creation of the first true chess-playing robots. Built in 1912 by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, El Ajedrecista (directly translated as "The Chess Player") was the first real chess-playing robot and is considered by some to be a precursor to video games. The device was capable of playing an endgame against a human opponant, and featured an electrical circuit and a system of magnets which moved the pieces. It debuted at the 1914 World's Fair in Paris to great excitement and acclaim.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: MdeVicente/Wikimedia Commons

1928 saw the creation of the first British robot, named Eric. Eric was created by engineer Alan Reffell and World War I veteran Captain William Richards. Operated by two people, the robot could move its head and arms, and could speak via a live radio signal. Its movements were controlled by a series of gears, ropes, and pulleys and the robot reportedly spat sparks from its mouth. As an homage to the Čapek's 1921 play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti - where the term "robot" was first officially coined - Eric had the letters R.U.R. engraved into its chest.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

The following year saw the debut of the first Japanese robot - Gakutensoku. Built in 1929 by biologist Makoto Nishimura, Gakutensoku was over seven feet (2.1 meters) tall and could change its facial expressions through the movement of gears and springs in its head. Gakutensoku's greatest achievement, however, was its ability to write Chinese characters. Sadly, the robot went missing while on tour in Germany. 

The 1940s: Asimov's Laws of Robotics and the First Artificial Neural Networks

While the 1920s saw the introduction of the term "robot", it wasn't until Isaac Asimov's 1942 short story Runaround that the term "robotics" appeared. In this story, Asimov laid out his famous three laws of robotics - that robots must not harm humans, that they must obey orders from humans, and that they must protect themselves from threats provided their self-preservation doesn't break either of the first two laws. Though written in fiction, these laws provided the basis for many of the ethical questions surrounding robots and autonomous technologies, and are still referred to today.

The 1940s also saw the creation of the first artificial neural networks. In 1943 Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts created a basic neural network using electrical circuits to better understand how neurons operate in the brain. Their experiments paved the way for the first autonomous robots that could display complex behavior, thanks to the use of artificial neural networks.

In 1948 and 1949 William Grey Walter created two such robots - Elmer and Elsie. Nicknamed "tortoises", the robots could respond to and move towards light, guiding themselves to their recharging stations when their batteries were low. 

 

The 1950s: The Turing Test and the Unimate

Another landmark moment in the history of robotics occurred in 1950, when Alan Turing outlined his test of a machine's artificial intelligence. The Turing Test has become the benchmark of AI, in that it measures to which degree a machine's intelligence is equal to or indistinguishable from that of a human. In its simplest form, the purpose of the test is to determine whether or not a machine can think. His work created a necessary framework for the establishment of the field of Artificial Intelligence in Dartmouth College in 1956.

The 1950s also saw the creation of the first industrial robot - the Unimate. The patent for the Unimate was filed by George Devol in 1954, and featured a robotic arm capable of transporting die-cast parts and welding them into place. The revolutionary device would soon change the face of the manufacturing industry forever.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: UL Digital Library/Wikimedia Commons

The 1960s: The Industrial Robot Revolution 

After Devol was granted his patent for the Unimate in 1961, the application of robots in industrial settings progressed rapidly. That same year, General Motors installed Unimate on their assembly line in Ewing, New Jersey. After the success of Unimate at General Motors, it entered full-scale production in 1966.

The 1960s saw a number of innovations and expansions on the core idea of Devol's robotic, industrial arm. In 1968, MIT's AI Laboratory co-founder Marvin Minsky created a "tentacle arm" - a robotic 12-jointed arm that was powered by hydraulics and could be controlled via a joystick. Minsky's robotic tentacle was strong enough to lift a person, and could reach around obstacles easily. His research paved the way for many of the soft robotics innovations emerging today. 

In 1969 Victor Scheinman created the Stanford Arm, a robotic arm that is considered to be one of the first robots to be controlled exclusively from a computer. This was a huge breakthrough, as at the time Unimate operated from a magnetic drum. It featured six points of articulation and was built entirely in Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Lab. Though used primarily for educational purposes, the Stanford Arm marked a major breakthrough for industrial machines that could be controlled via computers. 

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: Gildardo Sánchez/Flickr

The 1970s: The WABOT-1, Industrial Innovations, and Robots in Space

The early 1970s saw the unveiling of the world's first full-scale anthropomorphic robot - the WABOT-1. The WABOT-1 was a follow-up to 1967's WABOT, and was created by Ichiro Kato in Tokyo's Waseda University. The WABOT-1 had a vision and limb control system, allowing it to navigate itself and move freely. It could even measure distances between objects. Its hands featured tactile sensors, meaning it could grasp and transport objects. It had an estimated intelligence equal to that of an 18-month-old human, and marked a massive breakthrough in humanoid robotics.

The 1970s also saw the progression of industrial robotics when, in 1973, German company KUKA released the FAMULUS - the first industrial robot with six electromechanically driven axes. The following year, Richard Hohn developed the first industrial computer to be powered by a minicomputer - The Tomorrow Tool, or T3. In 1978 SCARA - the Selective Compliance Assembly Robotic Arm - was created. Developed by University of Yamanashi professor, Hiroshi Makino, the arm could move along 4 axis and became a common fixture in assembly lines in the early 1980s.

The first robots to land on Mars were Viking 1 and Viking 2, who landed on the red planet in 1976. Both robots were powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators, which generated power from the heat given off by decaying plutonium. Though the data collected by both Vikings was ambiguous, they were the official forerunners of the Mars rovers we know today.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: Mark Pelligrino/Wikimedia Commons

The 1980s: Robots in the Home, the Canadarm, and Genghis

It was in the 1980s that robots officially entered the mainstream consumer market, though mostly as simple toys. One of the most popular of these robotic toys was the Omnibot 2000 by TOMY. The Omnibot 2000 was remote-controlled, and came complete with a tray for serving drinks and snacks. Another highly sought-after robotic toy from this period was Nintendo's R.O.B, or Robotic Operating Buddy. R.O.B. was marketed as a robotic player two for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It could respond to six different commands, which were communicated via light flashes from a CRT screen. 

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: Rama/Wikimedia Commons

The '80s saw further developments in the field of industrial robots, with Ford adding hundreds of robots to their assembly lines worldwide. The Ford Fiesta was notable for being one of the first cars in the world whose anti-corrosion sealants were injected by robots. 

Robots continued their journeys through the cosmos in the '80s too, with the launch of the Canadarm on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1981. The Canadian-made robotic arm was 50 feet (15.2 meters) long and had six points of articulation. It could be controlled by one crew member in the control station, and performed 90 successful missions during its time in service.

Often considered one of the most important robots in modern history, 1989's Genghis was a hexapodal robot made by researchers in MIT. Due to its small size and inexpensive materials, Genghis is credited with shortening production time and cost for future space robot designs. It was built with 12 servo motors and 22 sensors, and could traverse rocky terrain.

The 1990s: The Cyberknife, the Sojourner, and AIBO

The early 1990s saw robots enter the operation theater with the Cyberknife - a radiosurgery system that could surgically treat tumors. Developed by Stanford University neurology professor, John R. Adler, the Cyberknife was a non-invasive surgical tool which tracked and targeted tumors with narrowly-focused beams of radiation. By 2010, the Cyberknife was used in 5% of all Stanford Cancer Center's treatments.

In 1996 the Sojourner became the first rover to be sent to Mars. The small, lightweight robot was brought to Mars by the Pathfinder, and successfully touched down on the planet's surface in July 1997. During its time on Mars, Sojourner explored 2,691 square feet (250 square meters) of land and took 550 images. Because of the information gathered by Sojourner, scientists were able to determine that Mars once had a warm, wet climate. The mission marked the beginning of several more NASA rover missions to Mars.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The late '90s saw the introduction of one of the most iconic robots of the 20th Century - Sony's AIBO robotic dog. Released in 1999, AIBO was one of the first robotic pets to hit the consumer market. AIBO could respond to voice commands and chase a pink ball which came with the purchase of the robot. Earlier this year Sony unveiled a new, revamped AIBO for the 21st Century market which came complete with two cameras and space-mapping capabilities.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: Sven Volkens/Wikimedia Commons

The 21st Century: The State of Robots Today

Though we're a mere 18 years into this century, robotics have already progressed and shaped so much of our technological landscape. Many homes now have their own Roombas - robotic vacuum cleaners that can clean your floors autonomously. We've seen the application of drones in everything from the military to home deliveries.

There have been so many landmark innovations in the past few years, that they would warrant their own article. When discussing the robotic achievements of recent years, however, it would be remiss not to mention two robots in particular - Sophia and the Boston Dynamics Dog.

Sophia made headlines last year when she became the first robot to be awarded citizenship to a nation. The Android robot, created by Hanson Robotics, was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship in October 2017. The following month, she became the first non-human to receive a United Nations title when she was named the UN Development Programme's Innovation Champion. Sophia's AI is cloud-based which allows for deep learning, and she can recognize and replicate a variety of human facial expressions.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: International Telecommunication Union/Wikimedia Commons

Boston Dynamics has been heralded in the media as leading the charge in modern robotics, thanks to their autonomous creations.

Robotics

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The most famous of these is the Boston Dynamics Dog, or BigDog, which captured worldwide attention upon its unveiling in 2005. It was designed to be a robotic beast of burden for military use, and featured 50 sensors over its body. It was capable of carrying weights of up to 340 lbs (150 kg) and could run at an impressive 4 mph (6.4 km/h).

Recently, Boston Dynamics revealed two more headline-grabbing robots - the MiniSpot and Atlas. MiniSpot is an autonomous robot dog that can open doors by itself, while Atlas is a sophisticated anthropomorphic robot capable of running and jumping over obstacles.

The History of Robots: From the 400 BC Archytas to the Boston Dynamics' Robot Dog
Source: Sgt. Sarah Anderson/Wikimedia Commons

If Boston Dynamics is any example to go by, robotic innovations are emerging on a near-weekly basis in this 21st Century. Robotics have enjoyed a long and storied history, and it would appear that we have far more to look forward to.