Robots in Ancient Greece

Marialena Perpiraki wrote for The Collector on the subject of Ancient Greek robots. We were surprised. We knew that Leonardo Da Vinci designed robots during the Renaissance and that clockwork creatures existed in the 18th century, but we had never thought of Ancient Greece as a home for automation.

Hephaestus was the god of fire, and also of volcanoes, blacksmiths, and craftsmen in general. He built golden handmaids — metal women to help him in his work, which we could think of as robots. He also made Talos, a colossal bronze automaton who guarded the island of Crete.

Perpiraki also includes Galatea, a statue created by Pygmalion. Pygmalion fell in love with her and the gods brought her to life for him. The story doesn’t usually describe her as a robot, but what else would a statue brought to life be?

But what about real life?

Tales and Galatea came from literature and mythology, so you might reject them as examples of ancient robots, but Nature describes bronze automata in the form of mechanical animals created for the Olympics in Ancient Greece.

The ancient Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria designed and documented a series of automata of his own. These devices were powered by steam or water pressure and could perform various simple tasks. One of his creations, the “aeolipile,” was essentially a steam-powered rotating sphere—a rudimentary precursor to modern steam engines.

As far as we know, the Ancient Greeks didn’t worry about losing their jobs to robots. Nor did they expect their automata to end physical labor and make them rich. Their early interest in the idea — and the reality — of mechanical devices shows that robots have an inherent appeal.

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