The Origins of the Modern Robot: From Da Vinci's Columbine To a Defecating Duck

Thursday, 17 July 2014 - 3:27PM
Thursday, 17 July 2014 - 3:27PM
The Origins of the Modern Robot: From Da Vinci's Columbine To a Defecating Duck
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Robots as we now know them — the digitally controlled industrial robots of the 21st century— are pretty young, with their earliest origins dating back only 60 years. But the history of robotics, or automatons goes back way further, and focuses primarily on birds. So let us take you on a brief history of these flying pioneers of robotics, from the ancient to the defecating....  


350 B.C.E - Ancient Greece

Meet "the pigeon", the world's first known robot, and more specifically, the world's first known drone. As far as we know, this wooden mechanical dove was the first artificial, self-propelled flying device... ever.



Created about 2,350 years ago by Archytas, the Ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, founder of mechanical science, and dear friend of Plato's. We know very little about the mechanics behind Archytas' Dove, but what we do know comes from the writings of Hero of Alexandria, some 400 years after the Dove's creation. According to the Smithsonian, it is said to have been "capable of flapping its wings and flying up to 200 meters, powered by some sort of compressed air or internal steam engine."  However, they add that "it seems likely that it was connected to a cable and flew with the help of a pulley and counterweight." 




Early 16th century - Renaissance Italy

Leonardo Da Vinci was obsessed with flight, studying birds in flight obsessively in the hope of unlocking their secrets.

(Credit: Leonardo's Lost Robots)


Early on in his work with flight, Da Vinci used the information that he had compiled about bird's flight to create his 'Columbina,' "a pretty simple thing that flapped it's wings via a mechanism activated as it descended down a cable."


Below is a somewhat misleading image of the Columbina taken from the Starz drama series, Da Vinci's Demons. 

(Credit: Starz)



18th century— French Enlightenment

Last but definitely not least on our list is the 'Defecating Duck', 18th century French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson's most famous invention. 


The digesting contraption was made of gold-plated copper, and was sized to real life dimensions. According to Guardian's Gaby Wood "It could drink, muddle the water with its beak, quack, rise and settle back on its legs and, spectators were amazed to see, it swallowed food with a quick, realistic gulping action in its flexible neck." 



Vaucanson's golden 'defecating duck' astounded the French public. It became the talk of the town. Parisians (or at least those who could pay the steep price) flocked to Vaucanson's exhibition of mechanical dolls and animals to see it drink, eat, rear up it's legs, and most importantly, poop! 



What makes it even better is that this defication-obsession that swept through the Parisian elite was smack dab in the middle of a period we now refer to as the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason — Paris was the place of Diderot and his Encylopédie, the 'philosophes' and their intellectual salon gatherings, the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, The Declaration of the Rights of Man, and... Vaucanson's gold-plated defecating automaton



 "Without the shitting duck," Voltaire so wryly commented "there would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France."





What a time to be alive...