Automaton Through the Ages

The Antikythera Mechanism is the world’s oldest surviving machine, which the Greeks made nearly 2,000 years ago.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
The Antikythera Mechanism is the world’s oldest surviving machine, which the Greeks made nearly 2,000 years ago.
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The oldest machine in the world

The Antikythera Mechanism is the world’s oldest surviving machine, which the Greeks made nearly 2,000 years ago. It was found off a shipwreck in 1901, and through a series of radiographic scans, was revealed to be a complex gear-based mechanism built to calculate the movement of the Sun, Moon and planets.

The fact that the Greeks could design and construct an analog calculator like the Mechanism in 150–100 BC, makes you think twice about how advanced ancient civilizations could have been. It might even lend credit to what the ancient Greek poet Pindar (c. 522 – c. 443 BC) wrote about the island of Rhodes, which sounds suspiciously like automata: “The animated figures stand / Adorning every public street / And seem to breathe in stone, or move their marble / feet.”

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The golden age of automata

The years from 1848 to 1914 were called ‘The Golden Age of Automata.’ Although it was made slightly earlier, circa 1800, one of the most famous automata from this period is Maillardet’s Automaton, built by a Swiss mechanician, Henri Maillardet. The sto ry of Maillardet’s Automaton’s restoration is as astonishing as the automaton itself. In 1928, the estate of John Penn Brock donated pieces of a complex brass machine to The Franklin Institute science museum in Philadelphia.

The machine, which was made in the image of a boy, had been damaged in a fire. An I nstitute machinist managed to repair the machine, and once it was turned on, the Automaton came to life, producing intricate sketches from its drawing hand. After drawing four pictures and three poems, it signed, in the border of the final poem, “Ecrit par L’Automate de Maillardet,” or, “Written by the Automaton of Maillardet.”

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The earliest Japanese robots

Automata flourished during the Edo period in Japan, circa 1603–1867. The Japanese called theirs ‘karakuri ningyo,’ or ‘mechanical dolls’ that were powered by clockwork. The most common were known as ‘zashiki karakuri,’ dolls that moved and served cups of tea for home entertainment.

There were other kinds of karakuri ningyo. Shinatama ningyō were ‘magician dolls’ that could perform simple ‘magic’ tricks, while yumihiki doji, or ‘archer dolls,’ could pick up arrows and shoot them at targets. Altogether, the karakuri ningyo were sorted into three main categories; as puppets for the theatre, small dolls for home entertainment, or ones that performed on wooden floats during religious festivals.

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Recreating the Antikythera Mechanism

Ever since it was discovered, the Antikythera Mechanism has fascinated the curious, and for good reason. The astronomical calculator and navigation tool was made out of complex gear mechanisms that would not be seen in history for another 1,000 years after it sunk near the small island of Antikythera.

Since then, there have been multiple efforts to recreate the Antikythera Mechanism in working order. Ioannis Theofanides built the first model in the 1930s. Others have followed, like Michael Wright, a former British museum curator who constructed a working model in 2006 that he believes to be a near replica of the original.

In 2010, Andrew Carol, a software engineer at Apple, debuted a working replica of the Mechanism – made entirely from Lego!

Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot made a miniature, working replica based on the Antikythera Mechanism that you could wear on your wrist. Only four of the Antikythera Calibre 2033-CH01 watches were made, with three sent to museums for display and one put up for auction in 2012.

Two years later however, Hublot released the MP-08 Antikythera Sunmoon, a watch based on the Antikythera movement. However, only 20 were made of this masterpiece watch.