Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Programming Roman Robots

Programming Roman robots? Say what? This might sound a little bit like the Roman light bulb story, but the idea of robots that could be programmed - and have those programmes modified - is the honest to goodness real deal. The ancient Greeks were more than a little taken with the concept of the robot or automaton - as early as 322BC, Aristotle was speculating how robotic machines could bring an end to slavery. And by 60AD, Hero of Alexandria was more than running with this idea. After inventing the first coin operated vending machine and the steam powered rocket, he took his hand to building robotic machines, and then worked out a way to programme them. Getting a machine to move was hard enough in those days, but getting it to do different things at the same time - well, that was mind boggling.

So how did he do it? Hero built numerous types of robots and most were for entertainment, such as life-sized human replicas that could dance and move on a cart as it was pulled along the road. The motion of the cart drove the machines, and the motion also drove their linear programming. The programme was a length of string for each movement with knots tied in specific sequences. Each knot was mechanically detected by the machine which resulted in a desired reaction - and it might take several strings running concurrently to control a complicated series of movements. Smaller robots were driven by stone or lead weights like a cuckoo clock, but the string programme invented by Hero remained the constant. Think about that next time you're reading Isaac Asimov. For more on Roman machines, read 'Mischance and Happenstance' - available from Amazon, just follow the links