Friday, February 12, 2010

Steampunk and Automatons

Back in my post about cyborgs in steampunk, I mentioned that the Ancient Greeks had automatons. This is borne out by the historical record: Philo of Byzantium (3rd Century BCE) crafted an automaton maid that would pour water or wine when a cup was placed in its left hand.

The very word, automaton, is derived from the Greek word automatos -- "acting of one's own will." And, as so many cool advances that occurred in Greece during the time of the great inventors, the automatons were considered toys, religious tools to impress worshipers, or even as ways to demonstrate general scientific principles. Hero of Alexandria (who gets more press on this blog than any other inventor besides da Vinci) created siphons, a fire engine, and a programmable cart among other things as examples of his automaton skills.

There's a stanza from Pindar's Seventh Olympic Ode that refers to the island of Rhodes, well known for its proliferation of automatons:

The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
move their marble feet.

The Ancient Chinese also had automatons, as evidenced by this excerpt from Lie Ze:

"The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time...As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yen Shih [Yan Shi] executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial...The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted."

Automatons have existed in the Middle East since the 9th Century CE, and are described in numerous texts from the time of Islamic scholarship. Al-Jazari, the famous Muslim inventor of the 13th Century, described a boat with four automatic musicians that he used to entertain partygoers. There was even an automaton duck in the 18th Century that mimicked digestion.

Suffice to say, automatons have existed for a really, really long time. What's this mean for the writer of steampunkery?

Playtime! Because the science of how to craft automatons has existed for so long, it's a well-documented method of adding robotics to your steampunk tale without applying too much modern science. Studying the texts of Signore da Vinci and those of Jacques de Vaucanson, the French inventor who crafted the aforementioned Digesting Duck, is a good start for more contemporary designs. Philo's automatic maid is well-documented via translations of his works, if you want to go more ancient.

George Mann's automatons in The Affinity Bridge are controlled via punch cards, if you want a literary example of how to do it. And The Difference Engine has an example of the Japanese Karakuri ningyŨ, which were designed in the 19th Century.

 A tea-serving Karakuri, designed in 19th Century Japan, with the mechanism at right. 
It functioned exactly as Philo's automatic maid did.

All you have to do, of course, is to make sure your automaton design makes sense. There's little worse than crafting some awesome technological advance and having it fall flat because the design isn't logical. 


Joshua McCune said...

Reverse Buck Rogers Title: "The Adventures of Young Alexander the Good and His Robot Aristotle"

Matthew Delman said...

*snort* I like it, sir. I like it a lot.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Whoa! I've never heard of Philo's automatic maid- that's totally awesome!

Love the primary sources too- I'm a sucker for those!

L. T. Host said...

You put the level of research I do to shame. And holy cow, how do you find time to write these posts?

I fear you might be an automaton yourself!

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

An engineer friend of mine had me do research for one of his college papers for him. Inside of 20 minutes I had roughly a dozen sources for him to work from.

Yeah, research is kind of my thing. Don't know why, but I'm able to find information really fast.

L. T. Host said...

That's good to know. I might have to hire you if I ever have to write a paper where I'm citing sources again :)

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I use an automaton to post comments on blogs.

ann foxlee said...

Wow! That Karakuri ningyo is soooo cool!!!

I didn't know about those!

Stephanie Damore said...

Totally cool. You're so smart--it must be a Michigander thing :)

dolorah said...


My son and I had a discussion on this type thingy several nights ago.

We both agree on the same point: today's technology is not all that has ever been. I mean, look at the pyramids, that were erected without modern technology, and still we can't figure out exactly how that level of architecture was accomplished.

We wonder if there haven't been several civilizations upon this earth that have exhausted its "natural resources" and the society died out, only to revert, and and grow again with a different level of technology.

Well, that's how we're weathering the current energy crisis, anyway. We're expecting civilization to either catch up and develop something new, or die and re-emerge in the future as something totally different.

Did I mention I'm an idealist?

Informative to the max, Matt. Right up my alley. Thanks.