We think of robots as a modern phenomenon – but they
existed in many forms long before the word ‘robot’ first came into use. By
tracing robots back to their early roots, we can uncover how our understanding
of this term has merged people and machines together.
Watch a short exploration of the surprisingly long history of robots.
Earliest known image of a clock (1406)Science Museum
A clockwork universe
In the 14th century, clockmakers began to build
clocks and astronomical models of increasing complexity. These time-pieces were
self-regulating – in effect, they were the first robots, though they did not
take human form.
This illustration, the earliest known image of a clock, dates from 1406.
Complex timepieces like this were often expressions of religious faith. By modelling what they believed to be God’s universe, the makers hoped to be closer to him.
Blood-letting measuring device (1204/1206) by Ismail al-JazariScience Museum
Alongside growing interest in clocks and astronomical
models, there was a fascination with machines that might be lifelike. This in
turn built on an ancient tradition of automaton-building in the Islamic world, stretching
back to the Byzantine Empire.
The engineer Ismail al-Jazari’s Book of Ingenious Devices (1206) described automaton wine-servants, among other remarkable machines. These ideas were then communicated to Europe.
Plate from Opera Chirurgica (1723) by Hieronymus FabriciusScience Museum
As mechanisms like clocks became more widely used, they
raised the possibility of comparisons with that other complex machine – the
human body. Both represented a unified whole made up of many smaller pieces.
As the study of anatomy took on new life between 1500 and 1700, people realised that opening a body and identifying its parts was relatively easy. However, deciding on the exact purpose of each part was more difficult.
Using a design from Opera Chirurgica (Surgical Works) by Hieronymus Fabricius, this iron manikin was used to teach bone-setting.
The thrill of a show
Through the 18th and 19th centuries, robots in the form of automatons were found not just in places of worship, but in shows and attractions – even on dinner tables. They encouraged onlookers to consider the similarities and differences between themselves and machines.
Writing made by automaton (1825/1835) by Henri MaillardetScience Museum
This writing was created by a 19th-century automaton known as ‘The Draughtsman-Writer’, made by the Swiss mechanician Henri Maillardet.
This remarkable and intricate machine is a lathe, designed to replicate automatically the work of a human worker making decorated wooden medallions.
The ingenious mechanism that drove the lathe, concealed in the cabinet beneath it.
Detail of ornamental lathe (1740)Science Museum
This close-up shows the incredible detail of some of the lathe's intricate mechanisms.
Obey the machine
During the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution roared into life. Traditional ways of life were replaced by the clamour of factory work. Questions were raised about the role of humans in this new world: they were seen by many as mere cogs in a large, impersonal industrial machine.
Spinning mule (1927) by Platt Brothers & Co. LtdScience Museum
This was one of the earliest industrial machines to replicate the work of a human cotton spinner. It was effectively the first industrial robot.
Birth of the robot
The word ‘robot’ was coined by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920). It comes from ‘robota’ – Czech for ‘forced labour’. Robots reflected the latest technologies, but also their creators’ fears of being enslaved or replaced. The modern robot was born in a world overtaken by upheaval and change.
Originally built in 1928, Eric was the first modern British robot. He could stand, bow, give a four-minute speech, and answer up to 60 questions.
This is the story of how Giles Walker worked with the Science Museum to rebuild Eric in 2016.