Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Journey into Automatons by Bob Curran

Dr. Bob Curran has tackled many subjects over the years. From vampires and werewolves to swamp men and everything in between. With Man-Made Monsters Dr. Bob dives into the what could have been's and might be's of man creating life. Steampunk has become quite popular over the last few years, but few people realize its history dives back further than Jules Verne and Mary Shelly with inventions from Jacques de Vaucason and Pierre Jacquet-Droz. Get ready to be amazed!

Warriors of Brass: Automatons

From the mid-1500s, groups of entertainers were visiting cities, towns, and villages with a show of “animated dolls.” These were tiny metal dancing figures that were powered by internal mechanisms, which performed in many streets and squares all across the Continent. They were, it was said, built in the style of the earlier Chinese figures (known as “karakuri-ningyo”), which had graced the palaces of the Emperors and noblemen there. In Europe they performed short plays and acted very much as animated puppets to the delight of many audiences. As such they became something of a fashion, especially in parts of France where they were to be seen as late as the 18th century.

Jacques de Vaucason

They may indeed have inspired another Frenchman, Jacques de Vaucanson, who had been born in Grenoble in 1709. (It is worth noting that he was simply born as Jacques Vaucanson, the son of a poor glove-maker; the “de” was later added by the Academie de Sciences). Like many of his predecessors, de Vaucanson was something of a mathematical genius, but he was highly interested in mechanical science and planned to become a clockmaker. However, he was also deeply religious and after a Jesuit schooling, he joined a religious Order in Lyon (the Minims, which flourished in France at the time) with the intention of becoming a priest. An accidental meeting with the great surgeon Claud-Nicolas Le Chat (1700–1768) sparked his interest in mechanical devices once more and also gave him an interest in anatomy, and he left the Order to pursue his studies in that direction

At the age of only 18 he received the patronage of a prominent nobleman who gave him a workshop in Lyon. His benefactor asked him to make a series of machines that would be useful around the house and Vaucanson obliged. He may have also seen some of the animated performing dolls in the streets around Lyon, which probably intrigued him. Hearing of their former Brother’s great successes, the Minims decided to pay him a visit, and in 1727, the local Head of the Order together with some government officials invited themselves for a meal. In order to impress them, Vaucanson decided to build some automatons, which would wait the table and supply them with wine. The move proved to be a disaster, for although the automatons were excellent and behaved perfectly the religious leader declared the inventions “profane” and an insult to God, and instructed the officials to destroy his workshop. However, they were unable to stop Vaucanson from creating more mechanical figures. His knowledge of anatomy had ensured that his machines functioned very much like ordinary men, mimicking human activities such as circulation and respiration. Throughout the years, he had refined his techniques and had created almost perfect androids and he was determined to develop his skills further, no matter what the Church thought.

In 1737 Vaucanson made one of his most famous creations: The Flute Player. This was a full-size figure of a young shepherd playing a pipe, which had a repertoire of 12 melodies. The fingers of the figure actually moved, but very stiffly, so Vaucanson procured a large envelope of skin to cover his work and enable them to move more smoothly. The result was presented to the Academie des Sciences in 1738. The automaton created a sensation. Although France was well used to metal toys, this was something far more sophisticated and it earned its inventor great prestige, despite the denouncements of the Church. Vaucanson quickly followed it up with two other automatons—The Tambourine Player and The Digesting Duck (the latter is considered a true masterpiece of mechanical engineering). The duck was able to flap its wings, drink water, eat corn, and “defecate” (the corn was held in one section of its “stomach” and droppings were held in another that were released by a spring mechanism). However, the design for the digestive system was completely accurate and was based of Vaucanson’s knowledge of anatomy. He is also credited as having developed the world’s first rubber tube in order to make the “digestion” more effective. Although he gained great credit for his inventions Vaucanson grew weary of them quiet quickly and sold them off.

The skill of his inventions, however, brought him to the attention of Frederick II of Prussia, who offered to be his patron and to install him at the Prussian Court. Although the offer was tempting, Vaucanson refused, declaring himself to be a “Frenchman through and through.” He declared that he would only work for French patrons. And indeed, he was rewarded in his own country. In 1741, he was approached by Cardinal Fleury, Minister of State for King Louis XV of France and appointed as Inspector for the country’s manufacture of silk. He was to oversee and advise upon the making of silk products all across the country (which had fallen behind the standards of England, Ireland, and Scotland). In his new role, Vaucanson promoted new methods for the spinning of silk thread including designing the first completely automated loom. He also began to work on computerised punch cards, such as those that would be used in the early 20th century, but never completed the project. (His work would later be refined by Joseph-Marie Jacquard—1752–1834—who would revolutionize the French spinning industry with the Jacquard loom.)

It is said that when he had time, Vaucanson continued to make automatons, although largely for his own amusement and the amazement of his friends. There are also suggestions that he was approached by the French Department for War regarding the possibility of making computerized automatons, which might be used in battle. It is said that he submitted some designs, but what became of them is unknown—were such soldiers secretly developed by the French? However, in 1746, de Vaucanson was made a formal Member of the Academie des Sciences. He died in Paris in 1782, bequeathing most of his inventions and his large library of designs to the French king, Louis XVI, and this would become the basis of the Conservatoire des Artes et Metiers in Paris. However, many of his marvellous inventions including the Flute Player were said to have been destroyed during the French Revolution in 1789 when many of his designs were also burned. He had, however, left a legacy of ideas regarding the viability of automatons in general life and in possible military action.

Friedrich Kauffmann

Inspired perhaps by Vaucanson’s work, a German inventor from Dresden—Friedrich Kauffmann (1785–1866) now created a trumpet playing military style figure, which was about as tall as a full-grown man. The figure was both imposing and threatening, although the “music” that it made was said to be rather poor. Its repertoire was rather limited and the sound was of a feeble quality. Nevertheless, it looked very much the military man, and indeed many people who saw it were rather frightened by it. The trumpeter is currently housed in the Deutches Museum in Munich. Such formidable-looking automatons reflects the thinking of the time, which was gradually moving toward a “reinvention” of the mechanical warriors of classical legend; now they were adopting a more sinister and monstrous aspect.

Pierre Jacquet-Droz

Kauffmann, of course, wasn’t the only inventor working in the field of menacing automata. In 1772 a Swiss watchmaker, Pierre Jacquet-Droz (1721–1790) and his son Henri-Louis (1746–1866) had created an android that could actually write. The “robot” was in the form of a small boy, seated at a desk that could write a few simple, pre-programmed sentences onto a page in front of it. It was composed of more than 600 parts, and is generally regarded as an early form of computer. It was so lifelike that people were at pains to tell it from a real child, and once more were rather frightened of it. Pierre Jacquet-Droz then created an even more complicated mechanical tableau, which was presented to the visiting King of Spain (the inventions had attracted the attention of visiting heads of state from all over Europe, China, and India). The display consisted of a clock in which a Negro servant spoke the time while a shepherd played a series of tunes in the background and a dog approached and nuzzled him. Jacquet-Droz then asked the King to offer the dog an apple, which he did, and the mechanism barked so loudly that the monarch’s own dog responded in kind. The Catholic courtiers were terrified and suspecting witchcraft crossed themselves and tried to withdraw. The King, however, asked his Minister to enquire the time from the Negro servant, but gave no reply. Jacquet-Droz quickly observed that the mechanism had not had the time to learn Spanish.

These mechanisms were so lifelike and complex that although a wonder to the aristocracy, they were beginning to bring fear among the serving and lower classes. They were now being looked at as mechanical monsters, and there was the start of a widespread fear that they might one day become so complicated that they would turn upon their masters and overthrow the human race. The idea of a monstrous army of automatons was already being born in the common mind.

Other Stories

And there was little doubt that the idea of a mechanised man had now entered the public consciousness in a big way, and was being reflected by popular culture. They were already being written about in adventure stories for teenage boys. One of the earliest writers in the genre was Edward S. Ellis (1840-1916) who, well before the development of steampunk, wrote of another “steaming” character, The Steam Man of the Prairies, now widely regarded as the first science-fiction dime novel. This was largely an action novel in the style of James Fenimore Cooper (whom Ellis admired) and dealt with a great steam-powered robotic man fighting Red Indians and overcoming natural disasters. It was hugely popular, first appearing (in Beadle’s American Novels No 45, August 1868), and then being reprinted no less than six times throughout the years—something akin to a science-fiction best-seller. It also paved the way for another adventure series featuring robots—the Frank Reade stories. These, too, were adventure tales and used the concepts that Ellis had developed. The first was written by Harry Enton and was entitled Frank Reade and his Steam Man of the Plains (seemingly a direct connection to Ellis’s work). The stories appeared in the juvenile fiction series Boys of New York during February to April 1876 and were high-action tales primarily based around inventions, most of which were steam-powered robots.

Having created a market and an interest, a long series of similar novels were published by Irwin’s American Novels, which featured the son of the inventor Frank Reade—Frank Reade, Jr. These were also aimed at adolescent boys and were written by the reasonably celebrated writer Luis P. Senarens (1865–1939), but using the pseudonym “Noname” to disguise who he was. Under his authorship there was a Stem Man Mark II and a Mark III, and later an Electric Man as well. Once again, the series was immensely popular and spawned a number of imitators and similar themes. The idea of steam and mechanical robots were now included in what was to become known as “invention fiction.” But such stories were also establishing the robot—whether it was powered by steam or an internal mechanism—as a huge and monstrous figure, which might run amok and threaten those around it at any time.

And there was another element in thinking about machines as well. In 1822, a British inventor named Charles Babbage had invented what he called a “Difference Engine.” In all actuality this was something of an extension of Jacquard’s automated loom. Jacquard had planned a series of slotted punch cards in order to activate and power the looms that he designed, but had never really brought this plan to fruition. A skilled mathematician, Babbage (1791–1871) developed the same cards to slot into and power functions of the Engine, which was in fact a giant calculating machine. (The term computer was already in use in Babbage’s day, but it specifically referred to human beings—those who “computed” calculations and equations. The human process was, inevitably, widely open to continual error.) Using a system of finite differences (methods for the numerical solution of differential equations and value problems) Babbage used his Engine to calculate without really using multiplication, addition, or division. The machine stood 8 feet tall and weighed 15 tons, and for 1822 when it was built, it was one of the most complicated devices of its day. It was, in effect, an early computer (Babbage is credited as being the “father of the modern computer”), and was supposedly more accurate in its deliberations than many of our calculators today. But once again, it was rather menacing and unwieldy. Babbage designed a “Difference Engine Mark II,” but this was never built during his lifetime—in fact it was not built and put in action until 1989-1991.

What Babbage had created was a “thinking machine,” and this was swiftly linked to the idea of automatons in the general mind. If complex machines like Babbage’s computer could think for itself then so could automated warriors. The idea of the monstrous machine, specifically designed to help man but ultimately turning on him, began to resurface again (if it had ever gone away). The word robot was not used, but it would be in 1921 in a play by the Czech writer Karel Capek entitled R.U.R. (Rosum’s Universal Robots). Capek always credited his brother Josef, an artist, with the “invention” of the word (robota) with relation to metal beings. Originally, the word was similar to the German arbeiter meaning a life of mindless drudgery, and was used in the Czech tongue to denote serfdom and servitude. Capek had originally intended to call the automatons in his fictional work labori (meaning “labour”), but thought it sounded “too bookish” and, on his brother’s advice, opted for the word roboti instead. In the public mind he created a thinking robotic serving class, who had been created to serve Mankind but, like their human counterparts, and as history had shown, might one day rise up and overthrow human institutions. Indeed, Capek’s play suggested the end of the human race at the metallic hands of the automatons. The menace of the monstrous thinking machine had now entered human perception and it was probably worse than anything that had gone before, as it signalled the very end of all human things. And what seemed even more monstrous was the fact that those human beings had actually built the machines, and so were, in effect, the authors of their own destruction.

Capek’s idea of menacing robots, whether individual or as a rampaging group continued throughout the years and dominated the plots of many science fiction books and films. Humanity, it appeared, seemed to be continually waging a war against the advancing machines, whether it be in the present, the far future, or on some distant planet similar to our own. Images of the looming, menacing robots have assailed us in both television and film, from the hulking Gort in Robert Wise’s celebrated 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (based on the short story by Harry Bates entitled Farewell to the Master); through the out-of-control androids in Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) to the menacing machines of the Terminator series, culminating in Terminator Salvation (2009). All of these films have contained an underlying menace from the machines, which has become deeply rooted in the public psyche throughout the years.

Excerpted from Man-Made Monsters

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