Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nerd History: Early Attempts at Robots

You, for one, may welcome our new robot overlords. What you may not realize, however, is that robotkind has been trying unsuccessfully to enslave humankind for centuries, and you might not even realize it.

Join me beyond the jump for some of histories more curious robot attempts:

The Turk, the Chess-Playing Automaton: In the second half of the 1700s, Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen was a counselor to the Queen in Vienna. Known for many things, but perhaps most notably his work with machines, he was commissioned to create a new illusion after what he felt was an underwhelming performance by another courtier. The end result was The Turk, a stereotypical-looking Turkish man seated in front of a chess board. The chess board sat on a cabinet that, when opened, displayed various gears and levers and other clockworks. Kempelen would, after displaying the innards of the device, invite someone to play chess with his new machine. As Kempelen stood aside with a box he would peer into from time to time, the Turk would typically make quick work of his opponent.

The machine itself was a marvel - the arm had significant motion, and could move its pieces across the board freely. When the Turk put his opponent in check, it actually spoke - "Echec!," it would exclaim. And, interestingly enough, if you tried to cheat, it would first patiently move its opponent's piece back to its original place and then take its own turn, and would dramatically sweep the pieces off the board if the cheating continued. It also knew some interesting chess tricks, including a tour of the board where the Knight touches every square that could begin from anywhere the Knight was placed.

The Turk became a bit of a curse for Kempelen over the course of his life, even while the Turk was playing some of the best chess players in the world, as well as getting the attention of people like Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. As the Turk's ownership changed hands over the years, Edgar Allen Poe became entranced by it as well. It would be exhibited for quite some time after Kempelen's death before succumbing to a fire in Philadelphia.

The secret behind the Turk was what was interesting, however - it wasn't really a robot per se, but more a mannequin that could be controlled from the inside of the cabinet. It was built in such a way that the person in the cabinet could hide as the person on the outside showed the inner workings, and the chess board itself was translucent so that the person inside the machine could view the board and make his moves. Rather ingenius. For the whole story, I recommend Tom Standage's The Turk for a solid and accessable overview.

The Mechanical Monk: Around 1560, Spain is ruled by Philip II. His son, Don Carlos, suffers a fall and is stricken considerably ill, with the head injury becoming life-threatening. Philip II prays for a miracle, telling God that he will provide a miracle if God can heal his son. Not long after that prayer, Don Carlos recovers, and Philip II commissions a work to hold up his end of the bargain.

The end result was this Mechanical Monk. Standing about a foot tall, it is believed to be modeled after a Fanciscan monk by the name San Diego de Alcalá (who would later be granted sainthood) and built by a known machinist of the time, Juanelo Turriano. The monk, when wound, begins a ritualistic prayer - the mouth moves, perhaps repeating a Mea Culpa, one arm beating its breast and the other raising a rosary and cross in order to kiss it. Plus, every so often, the monk turns and changes direction.

The monk has since been put on display at the Smithsonian, but for more information on this curiousity, I suggest the short Radiolab podcast entitled "A Clockwork Miracle," or Elizabeth King's detailed journal article, "Clockwork Prayer: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Monk."

The Digesting Duck: Does what it says on the tin - this 18th century robotic duck eats, "digests," and then poops. Never accuse our forebearers of being highbrow.

Created by Jacques de Vaucanson (who, it appears, may have had significant digestive issues himself), the duck was mentioned briefly on the previous Radiolab podcast, but the story is rather fascinating. While the duck is remembered most fondly for its bowel movements, the duck itself was vocal, was able to stand, and drank as well as ate the grain that later became its poop. The idea behind it was fairly simple - the grain was held in one area while the waste was in a separate compartment.

What was perhaps most interesting about the duck was the debate that it became part of. As Jessican Riskin, a Stanford Professor and the writer of probably the best overview of the duck I've seen noted, the scientific questions regarding digestion were amplified by this automaton, and the machine itself was impressive on its own.

Faber's Talking Machine: My final highlight is this monstrosity from 1845. Designed primarily to translate morse code into human speech, it really more resembles a bit of a horror show.

Talking machines were not new by the time 1845 came around. Baron von Kempelen, builder of the Turk, was more interested in his own talking machines (which is surely part of the reason why the Turk had some limited speech skills), but this was a different invention that didn't rely so much on hoax as it did an understanding of human vocal anatomy and an understanding of vocal tones. The machine had many keys to simulate sounds, and a final key that opened the machine's glottis between the vocal chords.

As seen by the photo, this is not a friendly-looking contraption, but many of the time loved the device and saw plenty of scientific and mechanical use for the machine. Undfortunately for Faber, the machine ended up being a literal circus sideshow act, becoming part of PT Barnum's traveling show.
As noted by the Smithsonian, however, one Alexander Graham Bell did see the act, and may very well have been inspired by the machine. Unfortunately, all I can think of now is the iPhone's Siri with a plastic face being held up to my ear...

Jeff Raymond is a soon-to-be-regular poster at Fruitless Pursuits. You can find more of his writings and reviews at his personal site theartolater.com.


  1. The Talking Machine never quite reached the popularity of Faber's Fellatio Contraption.

  2. I'm told that one really blew audiences away.