by Edward Whelan
A common topic of discussion these days is the
growing automation of the world.
means any machinery or self-operating machinery. They are designed
to act in a predetermined way and according to instructions, the
best example of this is perhaps a robot.
We think that automation and automatons are modern inventions.
In fact, like so much
else, we owe a debt to the Romans and Greeks, who were pioneers in
The word automation or automaton comes from the Greek.
Homer was the
first to use this term.
In Greek mythology, there are many
references to self-moving machines.
The poet described
tables in Olympus that could be automated.
Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, created automatons,
or robots, to work in his workshops.
This deity also
created a killer-robot, Talos, who would throw rocks at
A Cretan coin
depicting the giant automaton
The famous inventor
Daedalus reputedly created a
moving statue that could speak rather like a robot. In another myth,
Alkinous, the King of
Phaecia, had mechanical watchdogs that
guarded his palace.
These fables had
some basis in fact, as the Greeks were capable engineers.
Robots and automata of the Greeks
The Greeks were able to design and build self-directed machines.
There is evidence that
they built a bronze automaton of an eagle and a dolphin that were on
display at the Olympic Games. Many of the automatons developed were
only toys, such as the birds invented by
Archytas (c. 428-347
However, one inventor
Philon of Byzantium (c. 280 BC-220 BC), invented a
It seems that in the Hellenistic period, developments in automation
really advanced. In this period inventors used a complex system of
levers, pulleys and wheels to build self-directed machinery.
Rhodes became well known
for its machine and there were two automatons in one of its main
squares, to impress visitors.
A book on automation,
On Automaton-Making, was
written by the mathematician-engineer,
Hero of Alexandria,
and in it he described many of his automatons and self-operating
hydraulic systems, fire engines, wind-operated machines, and
even a self-propelled cart. He also invented a number of war
It appears that in
Alexandria there was a theatre that consisted only of automatons,
who performed dramas for audiences.
Hero's sketch of Opening Temple-Doors
Steam, b. c. 200,
History of the Growth of the Steam-Engine,
Robert H. Thurston, A. M., C. E.
automatons and automation
Religion was a very important part of ancient life.
Many of the inventions
that were developed came to be used in religious processions and
temples. From the sources, we know that the Greeks used
self-operated machines for religious purposes.
In religious and civic processions, which were a feature of life in
cities such as Athens, automatons played a major role. In civic
festivals, these machines were a type of entertainment technology.
The god Nysa was part of
a religious procession in Alexandria, and a figure of the god was
carried in a cart and it would stand up and pour libations, which
greatly impressed the crowds.
The automated snail of
Demetrius of Phalerum is one of the
earliest and most intriguing references to a processional automaton
from the ancient world. Demetrius was a tyrant and used the
automaton to impress the population and make them accept his rule.
As for shrines and temples, it seems automatons were used to impress
There are many references
to these technologies.
references to figurines that could pour libations and also
appeared to dance.
indicate that there was a shrine to Dionysus that had a number
of automated figures.
Several temples had
trumpets that would sound when a door was opened and many
shrines had automated water dispensers.
Hero's Steam Fountain, b. c. 200,
from A History of the Growth of the Steam-Engine,
by Robert H. Thurston, A. M., C. E.
The majority of technology developed by the Greeks seems to have
only been for entertainment, spectacle, and toys.
the Antikythera mechanism (1st
century BC), recovered from a sunken ship in the Aegean Sea, appears
to be the first analog computer, and it was designed to make
astronomical calculations possible in order to determine the timing
of the Olympics.
There is little record of the Romans developing automatons, however,
they were great engineers.
It seems that, like the
Greeks, they used automatons as toys, entertainment and public
Mark Anthony had an automaton of Julius Caesar, made
of wax, depicting Caesar rising from his deathbed and turning,
slowly, to display his twenty-three bleeding wounds to the crowd.
This started a riot and
led to Brutus and the other killers of Caesar fleeing the city.
There are also reports that Roman temples used mechanical birds and
figurines in a similar manner to the Greeks.
Illustration from Roman Watermills:
the 1st century B.C. to the 5th century A.D.,
Wilson of High Wray
The end of
automation in the ancient world
collapse of the Roman Empire meant that much of the knowledge of
self-operating machines was lost.
However, much still
survived and the Byzantines, and later the Arabs, built machines
based on Greek and Roman models.
It is common for us today to theorize, and even worry, about the
future of technology:
the possibilities and the dangers that
await us from automation and artificial intelligence (AI).
The automatons of today
and the future are and will be, of course, more advanced than those
of our Greek and Roman ancestors.
Nonetheless, they still
inspire us to this day...