Pioneers of Robotics

tony leather By tony leather, 1st May 2012 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/2vo05rcr/
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He was far more interested in the clock he found there, and at six years of age, had memorized its working parts so completely that he was able to build a perfect copy at home.

Pioneers of Robotics


Robots are the playthings of the big boys, nowadays, and some companies, notably in Japan, are spending millions in an effort to create genuinely ‘humanoid’ robots. Yet the modern automaton is depends on technology that was unknown until a century ago. Not that moving figures are anything new.

In 350 B.C. the brilliant Greek mathematician, Archytas, built a mechanical bird dubbed "the Pigeon" that was propelled by steam. It served as one of histories earliest studies of flight, not to mention probably the first model airplane.

The 14th century saw the construction of animated clocks in the great cathedrals, with human figures and animals that were set in motion on the stroke of each hour. The best known of these are the astronomical clock at Strasbourg, the one at Dijon and the famous clock at St Mark's in Venice.

In 1495, Leonardo DaVinci designed a mechanical device that looked like an armored knight. The mechanisms inside were designed to make the knight move as if there were a real person inside. Inventors in medieval times often built such machines to amuse royalty.

How often do we think about these genuine pioneers, of the days before electricity, when the job was all but impossible? Robotics have moved forward with breathtaking speed over the last century, but there were men in history, now barely remembered, who were generations ahead of their time.

Automatons

Automated figures have always fascinated people, especially objects with a serious side, and the 18th century saw a wealth of wonderful creations appearing on public display. Perhaps the absolute master of this craft was a French man whom Voltaire called the ‘new Prometheus’, a man blessed with the ability to give ‘life’ to inanimate things.

His amazing creations were applauded all over Europe, admired by royalty and highly praised by the eminent scientists of the time. Yet his passion for mechanical creativity didn’t really come to light until he embraced religion, though it was evident from an early age.

Jaques de Vaucanson was born in Grenoble in 1709, the youngest of ten children. His mother was devout Catholic, and took Jaques along whenever she visited the church. He was far more interested in the clock he found there, and at six years of age, had memorized its working parts so completely that he was able to build a perfect copy at home.

His passion had taken hold. At seven, his father’s death saw him sent to a monastery to be educated, where he arrived holding a metal box to his chest. Unable to pay proper attention in class, he was forced to open the box by the father superior, who was amazed to find that it contained an unfinished mechanical boat.

Early Robots

Locked away for two days as punishment, Jaques used the time to produce drawings so detailed that the mathematics teacher decided to help him out. As his schooling progressed, the young man realized that the only way he could continue to expand his mechanical leanings would be through the patronage of the church.

He became a novice at the religious order of Minimes in Lyon, where he was given his own workshop and a grant from an interested nobleman. He did not have free reign, however, and after creating androids to help serve a dinner, in 1727, found his workshop destroyed because one of the heads of the order thought his inventions ‘Profane’.

Vaucanson withdrew from the order on the grounds of ill health and ran away to Paris, attending lectures in anatomy and medicine at the Jardins du Roi. He was making ever more elaborate automatons and went on tour in Brittany, where he met he financial backer who guaranteed him an entry to high society as a gentleman of means.

It was in 1738 that he unveiled his most ambitious – and perhaps greatest – creation, the inspiration for which had come to him during a four-month bout of severe illness, when he had largely been delirious. Inspired by a famous marble statue – the work of royal sculptor Antoine Coysevox – in the Tuileres Gardens – he set about building the flute player.

It cost anyone who wanted to see it a week’s wages, but all said it was value for money because this thing was so ingenious. Made of wood and painted white, the flute player was life size at five and a half feet tall. Musicians claimed that the flute was the hardest of instruments to play – so much differential in breathing and finger movement – yet here was a lifeless object that performed the task with ease.
Nine bellows fed three separate pipes into the figure’s chest. Each set of three bellows was weighted to give varying amounts of air, and all pipes merged to a single one as it reached the mouth of the statue.. The lips could move forwards and back, as well as open and close, and a movable metal tongue governed the airflow.

This was probably the closet to actual breathing that any automaton had ever come, and the covering by a glove-maker’s son of the wooden fingers with a sort of ‘skin’ ensured that the correct sort of pressure was applied to the holes of the flute. The device could perform twelve different melodies with consummate ease, and had the public enthralled for months.

As far-sighted as this automaton was, the viewing public was fickle, and interest began to wane after a year or so. Not to be outfaced, the ingenious Vaucanson produced new figures to excite interest. One was a pipe and drum figure that could play much faster than any human, but the most interesting thing – for which the inventor is perhaps best remembered – was the shitting duck.

Made of gold-plated copper, it could stir the water with it’s beak, rise and settle back down on its legs, quack and swallow food with a very realistic gulping action. Not only that, but it would take food from a spectator’s hand and excrete it again in front of them.

The inner workings of this incredible automaton are very much a mystery, but it received rapturous applause and was ingenious in the extreme. Sadly though, this was to be the last example of his vast talent, for he gave up creating new things in 1741, selling his automata on to interested parties, who took them to England, after which they changed hands often.

The flute player disappeared into obscurity, though the duck make several comebacks over the years. Eventually, in 1805, it was discovered that the automata lay in a garden shed belonging to the Duke of Brunswick, a collector of curiosities, though they were in very poor condition.

Little is known about the fate of these early robots after this man’s death, though the duck –did re-surface in Paris at the Exposition Universelle of 1844, and was reported being in a Krakow museum in 1879, though the building burnt down that year.

The crying shame is that had Vaucanson taken his creativity a stage further, how much more advanced might the scientific world be in terms of mechanical life forms? No one since has emulated his designs or his methods, and maybe the world is a poorer place for that. He really does deserve recognition, for being a man who was so far ahead of his time.

Real Showman

Locked away for two days as punishment, Jaques used the time to produce drawings so detailed that the mathematics teacher decided to help him out. As his schooling progressed, the young man realized that the only way he could continue to expand his mechanical leanings would be through the patronage of the church.

He became a novice at the religious order of Minimes in Lyon, where he was given his own workshop and a grant from an interested nobleman. He did not have free reign, however, and after creating androids to help serve a dinner, in 1727, found his workshop destroyed because one of the heads of the order thought his inventions ‘Profane’.

Vaucanson withdrew from the order on the grounds of ill health and ran away to Paris, attending lectures in anatomy and medicine at the Jardins du Roi. He was making ever more elaborate automatons and went on tour in Brittany, where he met he financial backer who guaranteed him an entry to high society as a gentleman of means.

It was in 1738 that he unveiled his most ambitious – and perhaps greatest – creation, the inspiration for which had come to him during a four-month bout of severe illness, when he had largely been delirious. Inspired by a famous marble statue – the work of royal sculptor Antoine Coysevox – in the Tuileres Gardens – he set about building the flute player.

It cost anyone who wanted to see it a week’s wages, but all said it was value for money because this thing was so ingenious. Made of wood and painted white, the flute player was life size at five and a half feet tall. Musicians claimed that the flute was the hardest of instruments to play – so much differential in breathing and finger movement – yet here was a lifeless object that performed the task with ease.
Nine bellows fed three separate pipes into the figure’s chest. Each set of three bellows was weighted to give varying amounts of air, and all pipes merged to a single one as it reached the mouth of the statue.. The lips could move forwards and back, as well as open and close, and a movable metal tongue governed the airflow.

This was probably the closet to actual breathing that any automaton had ever come, and the covering by a glove-maker’s son of the wooden fingers with a sort of ‘skin’ ensured that the correct sort of pressure was applied to the holes of the flute. The device could perform twelve different melodies with consummate ease, and had the public enthralled for months.

As far-sighted as this automaton was, the viewing public was fickle, and interest began to wane after a year or so. Not to be outfaced, the ingenious Vaucanson produced new figures to excite interest. One was a pipe and drum figure that could play much faster than any human, but the most interesting thing – for which the inventor is perhaps best remembered – was the shitting duck.

Made of gold-plated copper, it could stir the water with it’s beak, rise and settle back down on its legs, quack and swallow food with a very realistic gulping action. Not only that, but it would take food from a spectator’s hand and excrete it again in front of them.

The inner workings of this incredible automaton are very much a mystery, but it received rapturous applause and was ingenious in the extreme. Sadly though, this was to be the last example of his vast talent, for he gave up creating new things in 1741, selling his automata on to interested parties, who took them to England, after which they changed hands often.

The flute player disappeared into obscurity, though the duck make several comebacks over the years. Eventually, in 1805, it was discovered that the automata lay in a garden shed belonging to the Duke of Brunswick, a collector of curiosities, though they were in very poor condition.

Little is known about the fate of these early robots after this man’s death, though the duck –did re-surface in Paris at the Exposition Universelle of 1844, and was reported being in a Krakow museum in 1879, though the building burnt down that year.

The crying shame is that had Vaucanson taken his creativity a stage further, how much more advanced might the scientific world be in terms of mechanical life forms? No one since has emulated his designs or his methods, and maybe the world is a poorer place for that. He really does deserve recognition, for being a man who was so far ahead of his time.

Tags

Automatons, History, Innovation, Invention, Robots, Science

Meet the author

author avatar tony leather
mainly non-fiction articles, though I do write short stories, poetry and descriptive prose as well. Have been writing for over ten years now

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Comments

author avatar Funom Makama
2nd May 2012 (#)

I love this piece, thanks for the great share

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author avatar tony leather
2nd May 2012 (#)

It was great researching this.

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