10 Ancient Robots That Were Built Without Modern Technology


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When someone says robot, we think of those large modern digitized machines that can mimic human abilities. While this definition holds true, it is also worth noting that such mechanisms were made throughout the history. Although they did not use today’s advanced technology, some are still considered engineering marvels. Here are the 10 most amazing robots built without modern technology.

10. The Moving Statues

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Ancient literature is filled with references to artificial humans. Moving statues were first documented by priests of Ammon around 1100 B.C in ancient Egypt.  These statues were reported to choose the next ruler from the male members of the royal family. It is entirely possible that these artifacts were built. Ancient Egyptians had enough knowledge of mechanics to develop a non-digitized machine based on a system of ropes and pulleys.

The Greek Ctesibius of Alexandria built an automaton operated by cams, and the statue could only stand and sit for use in processions. Though his writings did not survive, later ancient engineers used his techniques on hydraulic systems.

9. The Claw

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No, it is not “The Claw”  that those little aliens from Toy Story referred to. The Claw was a precursor to the industrial robotic arm found in modern factories. It was employed against the Roman invaders of Syracuse in 213 B.C. The historian Polybius recounts the scene in his book as Roman ships approached, “The giant hand swooped down on a target vessel and lifted the ship’s prow out of the water and stood it up vertically on its stern.”  The claw was an application of the two laws of Archimedes; the law of the lever and law of buoyancy. Though there is no historical evidence of the actual machine being built by Archimedes, recent tests show that building this live crane device was possible at the time.

8. The Maidservant Of Philon

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The Greek inventor Philon of Byzantium, who died around 220 B.C., was known as Mechanicus because of his impressive skills in engineering. His book “Compendium of Mechanics” has a description of a female robot. The robot could mix water and wine to make a drink when a cup was placed in one of her hands. His invention never took off due to abundant labor already available at that time.

7. Hero Of Alexandria’s Programmable Robot

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Hero or Heron of Alexandria (10-70 A.D) was much influenced by the work of Philon. His ingenious devices included coin-operated holy water dispensers, automatic doors, and the aeolipile that harnessed steam power 1,700 years before James Watt’s steam engine. But his most impressive work was a programmable robot. The device was a three-wheel car that carried other robots onto to the stage where they performed for the audience. A falling weight used to pull a rope wrapped around the cart’s two independent axles. Hero could vary length rope wound around the axle, thus giving him the ability to program how the robots performed beforehand. Noel Sharkey, the computer scientist from the University of Sheffield, relates this control system to modern day binary programming.

6. Leonardo’s Knight And Lion

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You can not ignore Leonardo Di Vinci when even remotely discussing historical inventions, especially when discussing mechanical robots. Most of his work is concept designs, but there is no actual evidence of a device being built. Leonardo studied Hero’s work and combined his knowledge of anatomy and sculpture to build his own. Leonardo built an armored knight that could stand up, sit down, move its head, and visor. Using fragmentary descriptions that survived, roboticist Mark Rosheim recreated the knight in 2002. Leonardo’s robotic designs were so efficient that they even served as inspiration for Rosheim’s robots for NASA.

Another of Leonardo’s invention was a Lion presented as a gift to King Francis I of France in 1515. The lion could walk on its own, and it could present the bouquets of lilies and flowers from its chest when halted. It was recreated in 2009.

5. The Praying Monk

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Gianello Torriano was one of the best clockmakers in Italy during the 1500s. He was employed by Emperor Charles V in 1529.  Torriano tried to cure emperor’s depression by making little automatas for him. Torriano had miniature soldiers engaged in battle on the dining table. He reportedly carved little birds from wood that could fly in the rooms and even out of the windows. One such creation, the Lady lute player, can still be seen at Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. But perhaps it is the praying monk that is the most impressive one. The wood and iron automaton walks in a square while raising and lowering a rosary with its left arm and kissing it once in a while. It can turn and nod its head, roll its eyes, and murmur silent prayers with its lips. This creation is still preserved in Smithsonian Institute.

4. Karakuri Ningyo

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Japanese and robots are inseparable. Some of the first creations of this type were made during the Edo period (1603-1868). They were called karakuri ningyo, roughly translated as “mechanical dolls.” The zashiki karakuri were much like Philon’s maidservants that served tea to guests. While dashi karakuri were used in religious ceremonies, these machines acted out ancient myths during festivals.

3. The Flute Player

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Jacques de Vaucanson is renowned in making mechanical devices that mimic human abilities. When he was a child, Jacques studied a church clock as he waited for his mother to finish confession. Jacques memorized all of its parts and was able to recreate it at home. Once the inventor was ill, he dreamed of a mechanical flute player in his delirium. First shown to the public on February 11, 1738, it was a remarkable feat as even humans find it difficult to play the flute in tune. Notes are produced not just by the dexterity of fingers and breath but also through the amount of air blown and how the flutist shapes the lips. Even after all those complications, Jacques built a machine that could play 12 different tunes. Through a system of bellows, pipes, and weights, Jacques was able to control the air flowing through the passageways. Even the movement of lips was controlled.

2. The Writer

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This was made by Pierre Jacquet-Droz, Swiss-born watchmaker, in the late 1770s, and it is still on display at the Neuchatel Museum of Art and History west of Bern, Switzerland. The small three-year-old boy writes quickly with a goose feather quill in his right hand, his eyes follow what he writes, and he even shakes the quill pen after dipping it in the ink pot. The writer is programmable as it can write any text up to 40 letters.

1.The Drawing Boy

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On display at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a two-century-old automaton called “The Drawing Boy” continued the tradition of mechanical magic started by “The Writer.” This was made by another Swiss watchmaker by the name of Henri Maillardet.  This has also been an inspiration for Hollywood. The movement of the arms is incredibly life-like and once wound up, it produces a drawing in under 3 minutes. This requires multiple cams, and if another drawing is needed, the machine must move the entire stack by 3 millimeters (0.13 in) to shift to another stack, or else the process breaks down. While the stacks shift, the boy even stops writing and gazes up with opened eyes as if thinking what to draw next.

Aren’t these super smart and unique? Please share your valuable feedback in the comments’ section below.

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