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When you think of robots, what image does that conjure in your mind?  Does it engender visions of 1950’s futurism?  The Jetsons?  Maybe 21st century manufacturing processes?  Bomb squad rovers?  Perhaps sci-fi movies like iRobot or The Bicentennial Man?  It’s a safe bet that, for most people, when they think of robots, they think of examples from contemporary culture.

Robots are actually everywhere today, though it’s not nearly as overt as Will Smith’s pseudo-utopia.  They’re out there though, doing our heavy lifting, enduring our mundane operations, and standing between us and our dangerous endeavours.  Of course, in most cases they look nothing like the movies portray.  And in fact, the advent of robotics isn’t actually a new-age, high-tech movement at all, not in the sense that it’s all titanium and silicon circuit boards.

Before we go down this road though, we need to get a grasp on a couple terms.

What is a robot?  The word itself is derived from an Old Church Slavonic word – robata – which evolved in to the Czech robotnik.  Both words refer to servitude and slavery, though the former was specifically related to religious servitude.  In 1923, the Czech play titled Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti was translated to English in the UK, and became Rossums’ Universal Robots.  The author of the play, Karel Čapek, claimed that his brother and collaborator Josef was responsible for coining the term, but however it came about, the word robot quickly supplanted all other terms previously used for that purpose.  Eventually the famed sci-fi author Isaac Asimov adopted the term in 1941, cementing it in the modern lexicon.  He then formulated the even more famous three laws of robotics in 1968.  Since then the word robot has come to mean anything remotely mechanical, autonomous, and computerised.

Though it’s not technically synonymous, robot is often viewed as interchangeable with the terms cyborg, android, and even artificial intelligence.  Which perhaps demonstrates how that word has become central to our idea of mechanical personhood, but the developments in robotics from the last 100 years, whether actual or fictional, are only a small part of the story of robots.

Prior to 1923, the things we now call robots were known by other names; automata, simulacra, and even simply machine (or their transliterated equivalent) were the common terms, and the origin of such devices long predates Rossum’s Universal Robots.

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Depending on how we define examples of automata, the earliest such devices come from one of the earliest civilizations we know of; Babylon.  Specifically dating to the Old Babylonian period c. 2000 BCE, these earliest forms of robots were water clocks, now commonly called clypsidra (Greek, meaning to steal water).  A water clock is a very simple means of measuring the passage of time using bowls of various shapes and sizes with a single small hole drilled in the bottom.  That hole would allow water to escape the bowl at a constant rate.  Babylonians measured the passage of time according to the weight of the water that had escaped the bowl, in units of measure known as qa.

You may find it a bit of a stretch to label a simple water clock a robot, but it does fit the description; an automatic mechanism used to perform a specific function.  By the time of the ninth Egyptian Pharaoh, Amenhotep III, in the Eighteenth Dynasty, water clocks had become somewhat more complicated. Priests at the temple of Amen-Re at Karnak used water clocks that consisted of twelve separate columns with marked gradations measuring months, days, and hours according to the water level remaining in the container.

The use of water clocks was spread across several disparate cultures, from the various Mesopotamian peoples, to India, and even China.  The Chinese water clocks of the first century CE employed clypsidra escapement, water wheels, and chain drives.  And with those advances, we edge closer to our modern understanding of the concept of robotics.

The next great advances in the realm of automata is credited to the ancient Greeks during the scientific awakening of classical antiquity.  The great Archimedes of Syracuse, considered the greatest mathematician of the era (and possibly all time), pushed the innovation of mathematics and geometry, and was responsible for inventing the screw pump, compound pulleys, and other intricate machines.  Most importantly (for this discussion) he was the first to accurately explain the action of a lever and of water displacement – or hydrostatics – which led to more complex mechanisms and more efficient use of available energy resources.  Archimedes’ work influenced nearly everything that followed, and it ultimately represented a true revolution in the area of robotics.

The fruits of Archimedes’ labours didn’t really gain a solid foothold in robotics though, until the Islamic Golden Age, c. 622 – 1258/1492 CE.  But when they did…

Some of the most magnificent, complex, and innovative automata that has ever been created came out of the workshops of Muslim scholars and craftsmen during the middle ages.  Much like the Chinese equivalent, the water clocks developed by the 11th century Arab mechanical engineer Alī Ibn Khalaf al-Murādī of Iberia, began to employ water wheels, but al-Murādi took things a step further.  He invented complex segmented and epicyclic gearing which allowed fine movement and more precise measures of time.

In 1206 CE, a Muslim polymath named Badi'al-Zaman Abū al-'Izz ibn Ismā'īl ibn al-Razāz al-Jazarī wrote a treatise on innovative mechanisms, titled al-Jāmiʿ bain al-ʿilm wa al-ʿamal al-nāfiʿ fī ṣināʿat al-ḥiyal (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), and with this document al-Jazari became the rightful father of modern robotics – among other things.  Al-Jazari was prolific as an inventor and engineer; the list of basic mechanical devices credited to him is staggering.  Without al-Jazari and his inventions we would be without camshafts and crankshafts, which are fundamental to internal-combustion engines (cars).  We wouldn’t have fine segmented gears, such as in modern clockworks.  We wouldn’t even have simple water pumps and the concept of irrigation.  We owe him much.

His most celebrated works though, are in fact robots.  Al-Jazari automata and water clocks (al-Jazari Elephant clock pictured above) are considered to be the pinnacle of his work, and are unparalleled in quality.  While most of his robotic inventions seem, in this day and age, to be quaint conversation pieces, imagine how revolutionary an automatic, mechanical, humanoid drink serving waitress would be in a world that still largely believed that the planet was flat.  Or the wonder that would be inspired by an automatic hand washing machine, complete with a flushing mechanism.  A flushing mechanism, incidentally, that’s still used in modern toilets.

Our history books credit a lot of people with the precursors to much of our modern conveniences.  Leonardo da Vinci is rightly considered to have been one of the most important thinkers of the early Renaissance, with his art, his musings, and his many inventions – from flying machines (which didn’t work), to tactical submarines, to his own automata – but few correctly illustrate the influence of al-Jazari and his contemporary Muslim scientists and engineers on all of the great scientific minds that followed.  Da Vinci himself was very likely directly influenced by al-Jazari’s drink server and mechanical musical band when he built his brilliant robotic lion.  That robotic lion is quite often given as the origin of modern robotics.  Obviously, at this point, we know better.  But when you think of all that’s come out of these early efforts, it does truly blow one’s mind.

Modern robotics are so far beyond the earliest examples, but even with computers and integrated circuit boards, and brilliantly written software, the fundamental mechanism behind the most cutting edge robots from Japanese developers and MIT engineers are virtually identical to those used by al-Jazari and al-Murādi, and even early Chinese inventors.  The only real difference between the technologies is that engineers from the middle-ages and earlier didn’t have access to electricity.

So while self-driving cars, and sprinting robots, and space-age tools are impressive, imagine where we’d be without Babylonian water clocks.