The 6 Most Badass Robots (Invented Before Electricity)
You might think that robots are strictly a 20th century invention, but you'd be sorely mistaken: At the same time that the human race thought stomach aches were just tiny, enchanted dwarfs casting hunger spells, a few brilliant souls (possibly aliens) were actually building full functional robots. So maybe they're not R2D2 caliber, but who are we to judge? They built friggin' robots before there was toilet paper!
The Steam Man
Zaddock Dederick, a name that sounds more appropriate for a Level II Thetan Power-Zorg, was actually a young inventor in 19th century New Jersey. His first goal was to come up with a perpetual motion machine, but when that didn't pan out he delivered something much more ominous.
What we have here is the patent of an android that could pull a cart and run up to a mile a minute. In a top hat. Smoking a pipe. Probably thinking that there was no way anybody could actually build this monstrous ironclad robotic Flash, the clerk at the patent office approved the steampunk monster. And guess what? It worked.
"Eat my dust, Jeddediah!"
The robot, which was named Daniel Lambert (that's...that's actually the weirdest part) was dressed like a human so as to "not scare the horses." Because horses will be totally OK with a nearly 8 foot tall iron giant running 5200-feet a minute while pulling a carriage, just as long as it's dressed like a proper gentleman. The people, on the other hand, probably never stopped screaming.
How Did He Do That?
With a steam broiler in the robot's chest. The steam drove the gears which powered the legs to lift up and push off the ground with a kind of "springing" motion that propelled the whole outfit forward. The speed was determined by the engine, so once it started, you were off to the races--and at 60 MPH and without a seat belt, your best bet was to lash yourself to the roof and pray that death would be as quick and painless as it was crazy as shit to watch .
Man, you know bitches be creamin' their petticoats over a man with his own Robo-Rickshaw.
So why don't we have Daniel Lamberts all over the damn place pulling us to work while we jauntily rejoice and laugh at the poor chaps stuck on their penny farthings? Well, because it turns out when they got ready to mass produce it, they couldn't get it to cost less than $2000, which was the 1860s equivalent of all the money that has ever existed.
Medieval Robot Musicians
Al-Jazari was a 12th century inventor who is known to historians as the Leonardo da Vinci of the Middle East, which is slightly unfair considering he died 250 years before Leonardo da Vinci was even born. That's like saying George Washington was the Reagan of the Revolution. Perhaps he was aware of the injustices to come, when the darkness took him and he came up with a set of horrifying Dark Age automatons who could actually play music, make facial expressions and move their witch bodies. At a time when extensive bloodletting was commonly accepted as the best cure for a headache, this genius produced enchanted miniature androids just for the hell of it. And they were even programmable.
Unfortunately, they could only play "Mr. Roboto."
How Did He Do That?
Like most of Al-Jazari's creations, this one ran on water; specifically, water that would run from one tank to another, thus creating momentum which would drive gears. The programmable aspect of this robot came in the form of a concept known as "hydraulic switching," in which tiny pegs could be moved around to generate different drum rhythms and musical tunes. Since one of the robots was a flautist, this undoubtedly came in handy for those Jethro Tull requests.
What? You know those arabs love them some JT.
And it turns out the entire ensemble could be programmed to generate "more than 50 facial and body actions during each musical selection," which we would be an absolutely necessity when covering John Mayer numbers.
Except that John Mayer would have been burned at the stake in short order. We know the face of a witch when we see one.
Mechanical Devil Dolls From Japan
Perhaps also eager to invent the Japanese stereotype, this robot was built by 19th century Japanese engineer Hisashige Tanaka who started tinkering with robots at the age of eight. Historical record does not indicate if he liked watching squids rape pseudo-white schoolgirls, nor made any mention of the size of his penis. He left those developments to later generations.
Tanaka had a thing for Karakuri dolls, which were like mechanical puppets, only more sinister (if that's possible). They were intended to "tease, trick or take a person by surprise" which is just a brilliant thing to design your creepy doll to do, Japan.
Tanaka was best known for the Yumi-iri Doji, a lifelike (if life was horrible) doll that picked up four arrows and shot them in succession. So they loved to take taunt you and "take you by surprise" and were programmed to be expert archers? It's like you're trying to write a Stephen King novel here.
Although there is some hope of escaping the deadly robot projectiles: One of the four consecutive shots was programmed to miss the target to better simulate an actual archer (because in 19th century Japan archers were apparently creepily smiling half-men attached to boxes). This just proves what we've been saying all along: Japan is now, and has always been in the mouth of madness.
How Did He Do That?
Tanaka's masterpiece was truly elegance in simplicity. It was a combination of western clockwork techniques with cams, levers, threads and had only 12 other moving parts:
So Tanaka pretty much perfected the technology that Walt Disney would later exploit to build his eerie, music-infused robot doll armies.
If you're mourning the injustice of this world that such a great inventor went unheralded, don't worry: He wasn't toiling in obscurity; the workshop he founded would later become Toshiba. That's right: Your television's great-great-grandfather was a murderous Japanese doll built solely to harass humanity.
Hercules Versus the Dragon
Heron of Alexandria (who sometimes simply went by "Hero" because modesty wasn't invented until the Victorian era) was a mathematician/engineer who lived somewhere in the vicinity of 10-70 AD.
Did you ever know that you're our Heron?
While not doing whatever it is that mathematician/engineers do (figuring out when the two trains will pass each other, most likely) he fiddled around with steam, wind and other forms of energy. But things got really exciting when our Christ-era friend here invented a completely functional Chuck E. Cheese style robot show illustrating the story of Hercules and the dragon. We're talking about an intricate, complete mechanical opera operating before the invention of pants.
What he came up with was Hercules fighting a dragon, and there were actually several different incarnations. What each version had in common was that Hercules was always perpetually attacking the dragon, while the dragon was either hissing at Hercules or drinking some water--which frankly kind of makes Hercules the dickhead in that situation. In one version the dragon even spat water at Hercules' face, which is an understandable reaction when somebody shanks you for being thirsty.
So basically, Heron made little moving gods for people who still worshiped big, unmoving, statue gods. Can you imagine how confusing it must have been to see your actual idols bonk moving monsters? It seems simplistic now, but people call it a miracle when they see Mary shedding bloody tears--imagine how they'd react if Mary whipped out a club and hammered a nearby statue of the Devil to rubble.
How Did He Do That?
His creation ran on an amalgam of pretty much every power source available: Air, water, pulleys, chains, pressure, magic, willpower, spite - you name it. The pedestal on which the robots stood was airtight, so when you lifted an apple (because if the Bible taught us anything, it's that ancient times were just chock full of apple-thieves) you'd break the air pressure, setting off a chain reaction that kicked the opera into motion. Imagine that: You think you're some big, hot-shit apple thief gankin' ol' Heron's knowledge-fruit and BAM! Tiny mechanical gods pop up and start waging a war-that-cannot-be right in front of you. Heron probably killed half the population of Rome with shock.
The Digesting Duck
Jacques de Vaucanson was an 18th century French tinkerer credited as being the father of modern robots. And with good reason: He came up with the very first poop machine, which as well all know is the foundation of all robotics. Wait, what?
It seems automatons were all the rage in the French court, but they were often seen as quaint novelties and toys, so if de Vaucanson wanted to get any respect he'd need to pull some serious engineering shit to impress the royalty. So he did it literally, with a pooping duck!
"Behold, your highness! A mechanical marvel! It is a duck! WHICH CRAPS!"
It did more than just defecate everywhere, of course. Everyone who saw it said it was completely lifelike: the wings flapped, the head moved, and the mouth opened so it could accept and eat whatever food was proffered to it, then it did its dirty business for all to see. Having witnessed it for himself, Voltaire famously stated, "without the duck of Vaucanson, you have nothing to remind you of the glory of France." It is often overlooked, Voltaire's serious and deeply abiding love for feces. Just like all the other French, really.
Little Known Fact: The Beret is actually modeled after a puddle of pooled birdcrap.
So for a while there, it seemed that de Vaucanson had duplicated life itself: Here was a creature that could perform an (unfortunate) necessity of life. What's next? A vomiting muskrat? Urinating squirrels? Ejaculating bunnies? When will the madness end?
How Did He Do That?
As you can imagine, a fully functioning digestive system robot would be a complicated creation. This one ran on an elaborate system of weights which drove over 1,000 movable pieces that were hidden throughout the duck and within the pedestal on which it stood.
Vaucanson was a
crazy complicated man.
As for how the whole "digestion" business worked, it didn't, actually. The food (usually a grain pellet) would go down the duck's throat and get stored away in a container. Adjacent to the other end, pre-stored feces (yes, real actual duck poop; because people could tell the difference back then. Priorities were uh...they were very different) were in another container that would be forced out at the appropriate time. Usually just after coffee and a bran muffin.
Leonardo da Vinci's Robot Knight
Best known as the Renaissance Al-Jazari (doesn't feel so good, does it Leo?) Leonardo da Vinci has ruled the school in the brains department for just about nigh on 500 years now. Considering all he accomplished during his lifetime, it should be no wonder that he popped up on this list as the designer of the first humanoid robot. Or that his robot looked like a knight. Or that it shot lasers out of its eyes.
We previously brought these up as part of the case we made for da Vinci being a super villain, and feel that elaboration is necessary because some of you didn't seem convinced that if da Vinci were to come back from the dead, we should in fact immediately kill him again. The story goes that shortly after finishing up The Last Supper, da Vinci found himself wondering how he could top creating the most famous depiction of the Lord himself, so he apparently focused his efforts on becoming a God himself. Man, his life makes us tired just talking about it. We would've taken a damn nap.
Not da Vinci.
We're missing about 14,000 pages of da Vinci's notes, but what has survived is a collection of detailed schematics including those of an apparently working robot. And 20th century reconstructions did indeed prove that it would actually work. It was dressed in German-Italian armor and had the appearance of a knight. It had a broad range of motion, including the ability to wave its arms around, (to warn the peasants that - holy shit - there's a robot coming) it sat up and moved its head (to follow their fleeing paths) and it had a functional jaw (to devour their fear for fuel). Oh yeah, and some people think it probably could play the drums. That's right. While the rest of Europe was 100 percent convinced that food went bad because of witchcraft and soap stole your soul, da Vinci was forming the start of an all-robot rock band.
How Did He Do That?
From what historians have been able to piece together, the robot was an amalgam of two distinct working apparatuses; one of them controlled the upper body, and the other, the lower. Cranks and cables seem to be involved, and it was believed that the chest, which contained that mechanism that powered the robot knight, contained machinery that could also be programmed.
So as we understand it: Magic.
Most likely the whole thing ran on a system involving water and/or weights but, given da Vinci's duck-shit insane level of ingenuity, we wouldn't be surprised to find that it ran off a combination of Zero Point Energy, Atomic Power, and Rock 'N Fucking Roll.
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For more reasons why it's a good thing da Vinci died, check out 9 Inventions that Prove Leonardo da Vinci Was a Supervillain. Or check out some other inventors that are rolling in their graves right now, 6 Geniuses Who Saw Their Inventions Go Terribly Wrong.
And stop by our Top Picks (Updated 2.17.2010) to see Cracked's robot (it's just Jack wearing tinfoil).
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