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The checkered history of automation

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November 9, 2008

The checkered history of automation

The checkered history of automation

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November 10, 2008 "If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker” – attributed to Albert Einstein after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One law of science that has forever remained unchanged is the law of unintended consequences. When an idea is born its full range of repercussions is completely unpredictable, and the history of technology is a littered with fascinating examples of how one breakthrough can spawn something totally unexpected. In the hands of others, some do lead to tragedy, but more often than not we profit from technology's unexpected boons. Gizmag's Kyle Sherer follows some of these strange tangents to discover how an 18th century chess playing machine, French duck faeces, and a 60s movie called “Sex Kittens Go to College” are linked to the development of the computer, automobile, telephone and even space exploration.

Kempelen’s wager: From a magic trick to the PC

In 1769, at the behest of the Viennese empress, Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen saw a magic show at the Imperial court. François Pelletier, the illusionist, relied on tricks involving magnetism, which held no mystique for the well-educated Kempelen. The show culminated in an exchange between the two men, in which Kempelen proclaimed that he could create a more compelling spectacle – and within six months, no less.

During its almost 100 year lifespan, Kempelen’s creation would come to be known as the Turk, but when he unveiled it to the upper crust of Vienna, Kempelen called it the Automaton Chess Player. It resembled a robed Turkish man sitting at a table in front of a chessboard, smoking a pipe, one movable arm extended over the board, ready to play. The display could be swiveled, and various panels could be slid open to reveal impressive looking machinery. The device, like its creator, showed a sophisticated understanding of both science and showmanship, combining an intricate arrangement of clockwork and magnets with the age-old magician’s principle of cramming a small person into a box.

In crafting the machine, Kempelen also demonstrated a profound understanding of the public mood. In the wake of the Renaissance, programmable clockwork contraptions, previously considered mainly as toys or distractions, had been infused with a new level of philosophical significance. Rene Descartes popularized the notion that organisms were simply a highly sophisticated form of automata – and therefore it was a short stretch for the public to imagine that a highly sophisticated automaton could possess human qualities. When Kempelen announced that his mechanical man could beat any person at chess, he was capitalizing on the perceptions of an audience living at the cusp of the Industrial revolution, who fully expected a future filled with technological marvels beyond their understanding.

The Turk was celebrated by the empress of Vienna, probably wiped the smile off François Pelletier’s face, and would go on to play Ben Franklin and Napoleon. While some believed Kempelen’s narrative, the consensus among the more educated was that it was indeed a trick…but a damn clever one. In particular, it caught the imagination of Charles Babbage, the English engineer who was, at the time, contemplating the possibility of mechanical calculation. Babbage played two games against the Turk in 1821, which was by this time under the ownership of Johann Nepomuk Mälzel. The following year, Babbage began working on the Difference Engine, an eight-foot tall, fifteen-ton calculator that was never completed, but contained many of the core concepts of modern computing. He followed it up with designs for an Analytical Engine, which used punch cards, and inspired Ada Lovelace to write the first computer program. Charles Babbage died in 1871, roughly a century after the Turk’s first appearance, and more than a century before IBM's Deep Blue defeated world champion Garry Kasparov.

Canard Digérateur: from duck droppings to the camshafts

Over 200 years before the Internet, the citizens of Europe were transfixed by a very different series of tubes. In 1739, Jacques de Vaucanson, creator of automata, was exhibiting his piece de resistance - a see-through mechanical duck with feathers of gilded copper, which "copied from Nature" an entire digestive system, made from intricately arranged miniature pipes. In addition to “eating” and “excreting” food, the duck could “play in the water with his bill,” gurgle and quack, rise up and sit down, articulate its wings and feathers, and stretch its neck. The sensation caused Voltaire to write, in a flurry of patriotism, “without the duck of Vaucanson, you have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.”

While Wolfgang von Kempelen used the Turk to deceive and delight audiences around the world, Jacques de Vaucanson was using automata as educational aids. He, like other post-Renaissance engineers, was obsessed with manufacturing simulations of life that included clockwork counterparts for every biological function. In addition to correctly proportioned moving limbs, the devices would often include circulation systems constructed from rubber, and organs fashioned from leather, cork, and papier-mache. For his astonishing attention to detail, Voltaire called Vaucanson the “new Prometheus,” after the character in Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods. The religious references did not end there: one of Vaucanson’s early designs was inspired by a clock in a church; his early tutor was a monk; and he became a novice in a religious order after leaving school. Unfortunately, the relationship with religion was not quite a two-way street. One of his workshops was destroyed by the church’s torch and pitchfork department after a religious leader described his works as “profane.”

Like Kempelen’s Turk, Vaucanson’s Canard Digérateur would outshine all his other inventions, including a perhaps more impressive automaton flautist he had designed earlier in his career. However, while the Turk inspired scientists by demonstrating what could be, the digesting duck showed mechanical systems that had more immediate applications. Vaucanson’s duck was the first device to use India rubber, now used in tires, tubes, gloves, and countless other items. The duck also made use of a technology that had been pivotal to the emergence of the first programmable automatons in the 13th century – camshafts. A cam resembles a wheel with a bump, which strike a lever as it rotates, providing devices with precise and regular motion. Contraptions like Vaucanson’s duck placed cams in the limelight, and they were subsequently incorporated into designs for a wide variety of proposed machinery, including early internal combustion engines.

Sex Kittens go to College, Phoenix goes to Mars

On November 25, 1930, in slightly smaller text than “All Urged to Support Senior Dance”, the Armour Tech News carried the headline “Noted Scientist to Demonstrate Mechanical Man.” The "Noted Scientist" was from Westinghouse Electric, a company most famous for its association with Nicola Tesla and its battles with Edison in the 19th century. However, in the early half of the 20th century, it was eagerly pursuing a variety of emerging technologies, including the recently named field of robotics. In 1926, Westinghouse created the first robot, Mr. Televox, a cardboard cutout of a humanoid figure which was connected to various devices via phone lines, and allowed users to turn equipment off and on using voice commands. Televox was followed by Rastus, the “mechanical man” from the Armour Tech News article. Rastus was described as a “mechanical slave” who could “perform various duties at the sound of his master’s voice with a quiet, astonishing efficiency.” The most famous robot Westinghouse created was Elektro. On debut at the 1939 New York World’s Fair the seven-foot, 265 pound golden giant walked, talked, and smoked cigarettes. Elektro was built in secrecy, and when it was unveiled it seemed to be an artefact from the future – however the robot, and many other 20th century emerging tech, had links to the work of Kempelen and Vaucanson.

While the Turk consumed a large portion of Wolfgang von Kempelen’s life, it had taken him a relatively tiny amount of time to produce. The majority of his life was devoted to a far less glamorous project called Kempelen’s Speaking Machine, which he started the same year he exhibited the Turk, and did not finish until 1804, the year he died. The Speaking Machine was an attempt to artificially recreate the human vocal tract, using bellows to force air through a fake mouth, initially made from the bell of a clarinet and finally fashioned from India rubber. Kempelen’s idea was resurrected twice after his death, the second time by a young Alexander Graham Bell, whose fixation on elocution would eventually lead him to contribute to the invention of the telephone. Following the invention of the telephone, Edison was motivated to create a device that could “play back” sounds over the new system, and invented the phonograph, a more advanced version of which would eventually give Elektro its booming voice.

Elektro was a publicity stunt for Westinghouse, and it worked, attracting people from all over the world and generating big dollars. Like the Turk, it captured a surging public sentiment that the future would contain technological marvels – a sentiment that was borne out within the century. Ironically, Elektro’s own future was substantially less than Utopic. The robot was last seen in the 1960 film “Sex Kittens go to College” (tagline: You Never SAW a Student Body Like This!), where it starred as “Thinko”, a funk machine accompanied by an entourage of four strippers and a monkey. Following Sex Kittens, Elektro was decapitated and his body was sold for scrap. His legacy, however, lives on.

While Westinghouse’s promise that robots would assume housekeeping responsibilities and entertain children was not entirely sincere, it was eventually, partially, proven accurate. Over 2.5 million models of Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner, have been sold since 2002 and robotics has exploded in the consumer and military markets. Even the probes NASA is sending to explore other planets are, in many ways, descended from Elektro. These technologies are the kind of magic that Wolfgang von Kempelen would definitely appreciate.

Kyle Sherer

For more information on the topics discussed, follow these links:
  • Wired article on the Turk.
  • The Turk The Westinghouse robots The Cleveland Free Times on Elektro. Footage of Elektro at the 1939 World Fair. Guardian article on the Digesting Duck Von Kempelen's Speaking Machine.
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