From golems to mechanical duck

Small notes about a history of automatons…. (Work in progress). It is often thought that the empire of machines is modern, but its predecessors come from far away in the fog of time. Kircher has already tried to develop a curious telephone, anticipated by Galileo, with which to communicate faraway places and allow musical transmission. But, at that time, other restless scientists wanted to go further, into a territory forbidden by religion. Under danger of heresy, they wanted to imitate God and designed, and even built, the first humans and artificial animals.

They were the ancestors of our robots. The ancient legends said that living beings could be created from clay or other raw materials to be used as slaves. These are stories of alchemical homunculi and golems. A golem could be created using magic from elemental forces. The stories tell adventures of golems made with lots of corpses, robot movements and superhuman strength. What animated the golems was the spirit of the elemental matter with which they were molded, their “construction” required weeks of hard work for the magician. Those imaginary stories were like horror stories. The golems were so popular that “secret manuals” were written for their construction. Those made of meat were the easiest to bring to life. Their pieces were sewn together and obtained in cemeteries, their intelligence was very scarce. The clay golems were sculpted in a single block and, in order to infuse them with soul, the presence of a priest was necessary. The most powerful and intelligent golems were those of iron or stone. History after history, the adventures of those fantastic inert beings were told, some even had names.

Imagination gives way to reality to build animated machines. The golems were nothing more than a desire, a longing that humans carry in their interior, driving the manufacture of machines capable of doing things proper to people. From ancient Greece, automatons have been created, devices that, as their name says, can move by themselves. In Egypt there were “robotic” statues that served political and religious ends, it is not difficult to imagine the terror of the people before such apparitions. These statues were almost always animated by compressed air. Many automatons used as toys were manufactured in Greece and Rome, a trend that the Arabs inherited and exported to other fields, such as automatic water dispensers. Roger Bacon is said to have built a talking head, although no reliable data about the device is preserved.

The oldest surviving automaton is the Strasbourg Rooster, built in 1352, an astronomical clock located in the cathedral of that city, capable to move its beak and wings to mark the passage of time. In Spain, automatons such as the “Hombre de Palo”, made by Juanelo Turriano in the 16th century for the king Carlos V, were also built. He had the outward appearance of a monk, was able to walk and move his arms, head, eyes and mouth. The most impressive automatons date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the public was enthusiastic about them and the Church considered them little less than demonic artifacts. Some museums are now exhibiting the few surviving examples in perfect condition. Undoubtedly the most admired of the automatons of that time was the mechanical duck due to Jacques de Vaucanson.

The artificial animal travelled all over Europe, arousing the curiosity of the people invited to witness it. The duck was able to lengthen the neck to eat grain from the hand, then swallowed it and digested it to evacuate it later. He also drank, swam and squawked. From the same author are other jewels such as an automatic flutist, or an artificial heart that could not be finished when the artisan died during its construction. That was the beginning of another mechanized goal: industry. The looms were automated and the sewing machine was designed. Those inventions were despised and feared by many. Vaucanson himself produced many useful devices in the industry, such as a weaver’s chair, which brought the anger of silk tycoons in France, who threatened to kill the craftsman.