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15 vintage robots (that definitely show their age)

The diversity of the machines roboticists have dreamed up over the years is truly astounding. Here are some highs and lows from a discipline that stretches back further than you might think.
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By Greg Nichols, Contributor on
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1 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

Archytus’ Pigeon (350 B.C.)

It was the first autonomous machine of antiquity. The flying contraption consisted of a hollow wooden pigeon that had an internal bladder. The bladder was positioned over an airtight boiler. When the pressure of the steam exceeded the mechanical resistance of the connection, the pigeon was launched. It was kind of like the very first Mentos and Diet Coke moment.

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2 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

Leonardo's Robot (1495)

In the 1950s, rediscovered sketchbooks revealed some of the long-forgotten creations of Leonardo da Vinci. One of these was a robot knight, which da Vinci designed and may have built in 1495 for a pageant in Milan. The robot knight could stand, sit, raise its visor and independently maneuver its arms. The entire robotic system was operated by a series of pulleys and cables. In 2002, the robot was rebuilt based on da Vinci's design and was found to be functional.

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3 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

​Digesting Duck (1739)

The Canard Digérateur, or Digesting Duck, is pretty gross. Built by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, it consumed kernels of grain and appeared to metabolize and defecate them. Reproducing digestion in an automaton would indeed be a spectacular feat. But the duck robot was just a mock-up of what Vaucanson hoped eventually to build. It collected food in one inner container and pooped pre-made feces from another.

Interestingly, the duck had a huge influence on popular culture. Voltaire wrote that "without...the duck of Vaucanson, you would have nothing to remind you of the glory of France." ("Sans...le canard de Vaucanson vous n'auriez rien qui fit ressouvenir de la gloire de la France.")

The duck is mentioned in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Artist of the Beautiful" and features prominently in Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. In 2006, Belgian artist Wim Delvoye introduced the world to his "Cloaca Machine", which really does digest food into excrement.

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4 of 15 user

Dederick's Steam Man (1867)

The robot wore a metal cummerbund. With its stovepipe hat, it stood nearly eight feet tall and attracted throngs of gawkers in Newark, New Jersey, where it was built. Two years after the end of the Civil War, a twenty-two-year-old American inventor named Zadoc Dederick created a steam-powered man. The hat was a clever disguise, an actual stovepipe that vented steam and smoke from the coal-fired boiler in the man's belly.

Designed to pull a rockaway carriage, the shafts of which it held at its sides like a traveler toting luggage, Dederick's machine lays defensible claim to being one of the first robots built in America. Instead of wheels, its three horsepower engine drove a pair of spindly jointed walking legs.

Amid the fanfare surrounding the debut, it was easy to overlook the small detail that Dederick's man didn't actually work. The conditions required were so exacting--wide expanses of smooth, flat ground--as to be virtually nonexistent in an era of cobbled streets and bumpy dirt roads. Deemed too dangerous to demonstrate in front of large crowds, exhibitors hoisted the machine from center beams in their halls where visitors could watch the robot's mechanical legs churn harmlessly in the air.

But Dederick's creation did inspire a frenzy of attention and ultimately provided the inspiration for future walking robots, which are only now starting to stroll out of labs.

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5 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

Selena, the electric dog (1912)

It was a monumental achievement that kickstarted the age of phototropic devices. The light-seeking dog was created by American researchers John Hammond, Jr. And Benjamin Miessner, a couple of cats who spent their daytime hours developing wireless control for torpedoes.

The dog's creators apparently had some concerns about future applications of their cute little robot. In 1916, Miessner wrote, "The electric dog, initially a "scientific curiosity," may within the very near future become in truth a real 'dog of war,'without fear, without heart, without the human element so often susceptible to trickery, with but one purpose: to overtake and slay whatever comes within range of its senses at the will of its master."

Yikes. Read more about David Buckley's excellent site on robots through history.

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6 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

Westinghouse Elektro (1939)

Think voice-activated robots are new fangled? Think again. Standing seven feet tall, Elektro appeared at the 1939 World's Fair. According to historian Jasia Reichardt, "Elektro was capable of performing twenty six movements and responded to commands spoken into a microphone. Each word set up vibrations which were converted into electrical impulses; which in turn operated the relays controlling eleven motors.

Elektro, which was built for entertainment purposes and to show off Westinghouse's engineering prowess, went on tour for about a decade before retiring and evidently being sold for scrap metal.

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7 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

NSU Motorcycle Rider (1950)

Sure, Yamaha and SRI unveiled an awesome motorcycle-riding robot called (unimaginatively) MOTOBOT. But that's nothing new. Created by the N.S.U. Motor Company of Neckarsulm, Germany, this scofflaw motorcycle-rider was designed to illustrate how to ride the manufacturer's motorcycle. The bot could start the bike's motor, change its three gears, drive at top speed ... while supported by a stand and technically not moving. To accomplish the trick the robot used a fairly elaborate system of switches and electromagnets.

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8 of 15 Hoggett, Reuben

​Artificial muscle (1957)

Developed by Joseph McKibben, an atomic physicist working at Los Alamos and the trigger man for the first atomic bomb, artificial muscle is an inflatable sheath can be filled and empty of air to simulate muscle contractions. Combined with an exoskeleton frame, the device, which is actuated by triggering a valve, can return some of the motor control to a patient's hand. It was an early entry in a class of powered rehabilitation exoskeletons that are only now coming to market.

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9 of 15 © Bettmann/CORBIS

Handyman (1958)

Man-augmentation sounds like a headline from your junk mailbox, but developing robots to give people super-human strength was one of the most important pursuits in robotics in the latter 20th century. Ralph Mosher, a GE engineer, was the godfather of such devices.

Mosher devised what's known as force-feedback. When a teleoperator tries to control robotic arms, its helpful if they have some sensation of what the robot is feeling. Mosher first major success with force feedback came in 1959 with Handyman, a pair of spindly anthropomorphic robotic arms attached via rubber bellows to the underside of a hanging black box.

Like a dishwasher, the box was emblazoned with the words GENERAL ELECTRIC--the word Handyman itself has all the tell-tale cuteness of one of GE's branded lines of home appliances. By giving the user an approximate tactile sense of the world the robot was interacting with, which was done via an array of sensors on the slave robot's hand, the device became much easier to control. Handyman was delicate enough to pick up an egg with one hand and strong enough to crush golf balls with the other.

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10 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

​Unimate (1961)

It was the industrial robot that spawned them all. Unimate took die castings from machines and performed welding on auto bodies; tasks that are unpleasant for people.

The UNIMATE robots had six fully programmable axes of motion and were designed for high-speed handling of parts weighing up to 500 lbs. It made its debut on a General Motors assembly line at the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in Ewing Township, New Jersey, in 1961, ushering in a new age of industrial automation.

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11 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

GE's Walking Truck (1969)

Ralph Mosher didn't stop with man augmentation. Here's an image of GE's walking truck, an early attempt to replicate the four-legged gait of an animal. The walking truck was designed to operate in areas where tractors might get stuck, and its development, not surprisingly, was funded by the military.

The idea was that a human operator would be coupled to the mechanism. The driver would basically walk inside the big machine and the 12-foot legs mimic him. The arms of the machine would follow the movements of the operator's arms, as a Popular Science article from the time explained.

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12 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

Kludge (1983)

In engineering speak, you never want your product to be called a kludge. But that's the nickname inventor John Holland gave his omnidirectional mobile robot in 1983.

The bot could be teleoperated, steered by wire, or could move autonomously. It was designed as a platform that could be adapted to a number of applications, from security patrol to a transport device in industrial applications. Interestingly, highly capable mobile robotic platforms are now proving to be some of the most promising robots on the market, with companies like Clearpath Robotics and Savioke attracting millions in investment to develop application-agnostic robotics technology. Holland was ahead of his time.

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13 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

Genus (1983)

What does all your chores and looks suspiciously like a penis? It's Genus!

This autonomous bot, which debuted at CES, never got the credit it deserved, but it was vacuuming floors and bouncing around homes decades before the Roomba. Genus would map your house, learning to navigate through rooms in order to clean up, interface with people, and answer doors (it even shook hands). With motion detectors, smoke detectors, infrared, and audio sensors, it was designed to be an expandable platform, the basis for a functional home assistant. But Genus never caught on, and the 1980s didn't become the decade of personal assistant robots, as many predicted it would.

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14 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

​Newtsuit (1984)

How do you work on oil rigs at the bottom of the ocean? A robotic dive suit, of course. Made of aluminum, the Newtsuit had fully articulated, rotary joints in the arms and legs, allowing the pilot impressive range of motion underwater. Developed by Phil Nuytten, the suit uses a pair of spinning pincers to control objects and handle tools. In later versions a thruster pack could be fitted to the back and operated with foot controls, allowing divers to move nimbly underwater, almost like dancers.

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15 of 15 Greg Nichols/ZDNet

Kismet (late 1990s)

It looks like a goofy movie prop, but Dr. Cynthia Breazeal designed this robot head to explore how well a machine could recognize and simulate human emotions. It responds to auditory and visual inputs and simulates emotions with its exaggerated facial features, vocalizations, and movement. The thing runs off of four Motorola 68332s, nine 400 MHz PCs, and an additional 500 MHz PC, impressive hardware for the day. The cost of physical materials is an estimated US$25,000.

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