Automation – a word that sounds quite contemporary. However, if you look at this concept more broadly, you can easily say that the history of automation dates back to the ancient times. The name itself takes us back to ancient Greece, which is considered to be its homeland. In Greek automatos means “automatic”. Nowadays, automation is a part of the world of new technologies. It is inseparably related to computers, steering and control, as well as industrial management systems. It is used in manufacturing, services, and transport… It can cover for humans in both physical and mental work. And what was it like in the past? What did automation use to look like in the ancient times and centuries ago? Here are some curiosities that shed some light on it. Perhaps some of them will turn out to be inspiring.
Flow control valves from the third century BC.
It seems to be the oldest device that can be classified as automatic. What was it? A device built by Ctesibius of Alexandria to regulate the flow of water in a precise and complicated water clock. Its operation was based on producing a constant pressure and speed of water. In order for the machine to fulfil its functions, Ctesibius constructed the first ever automatic flow control valve.
Water vending machine
Heron of Alexandria, who lived and worked in the 1st century A.D., is probably another scholar who inspired many inventors. This Greek mathematician, physicist, mechanic and designer created several interesting devices. One of them was the first vending machine placed in temples. It was a custom to wash hands and face before entering the houses of prayer. Believers could then use the machine. When a bronze coin was introduced via a slot on the top of the machine, a set amount of holy water was dispensed. The device worked in a specific way. When the coin was deposited, it fell upon a pan attached to a lever. The lever opened up a valve which let some water flow out. The pan continued to tilt with the weight of the coin until it fell off, at which point a counter-weight would snap the lever back up and turn off the valve. It is possible that somebody else was the precursor of this system. Perhaps Hero was inspired by a device invented 300 years earlier by Philo of Byzantium. It was used by the guests for washing their hands at parties.
First automatic door
Heron of Alexandria was an extremely creative person. It is thanks to his idea almost two millennia ago that we have the automatic door. How did it work? He constructed a kind of rocket-like reaction engine and the first recorded steam engine . Another engine used air from a closed chamber heated by an altar fire to displace water from a sealed vessel; the water was collected and its weight, pulling on a rope, opened temple doors. The door opened and closed by itself.
Ancient Chinese Differential Gears
Ancient China also has something to boast about. The south-pointing chariot (or carriage) was an ancient Chinese two-wheeled vehicle that carried a movable pointer to indicate the south. Usually the pointer took the form of a doll or figure with an outstretched arm. The device was so complicated that over the centuries scientists were not able to investigate how the mechanism worked. It was not until the sixties of the twentieth century that Joseph Needham had explored everything and found a solution. He was a British biochemist and sinologist known for his scientific research and writing on the history of Chinese science. Needham studied the chariot with his Chinese colleagues. They tried to figure out how it happened that the statue always pointed to the south correctly. It turned out that the figure was connected to the wheels with a complicated gear. The construction was similar to the differential mechanism used in cars that makes the wheels of the car spin at different speeds when cornering.
It’s hard to imagine that the first androids could exist centuries ago. These artificial beings performing different tasks automatically and resembling humans (or animals) appeared as early as in the 13th century. They were created by two scientists. One of them was the English Franciscan friar and philosopher Roger Bacon, who created a talking head of bronze. The second one was a German theologian, a recognized medieval scholar and Bishop of Regensburg, St. Albert the Great. There is some evidence that he constructed an iron figure that opened and closed the door and even greeted the visitors. The work on this android is believed to have taken about 30 years. What was the fate of that invention? Supposedly it was a “victim” of St. Thomas of Aquinas. He was so scared of the ‘doorkeeper’ that he destroyed it, considering it to be a work of evil forces.
Leonardo Da Vinci as an engineer
Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps best known as an artist, yet one cannot forget that he was also a talented engineer. Fascinated by the various machines, he studied the secrets of their operation, improved them and designed them. As in the cases of most geniuses, his ideas were ahead of the times. What did da Vinci give his thoughts to? You’ll be surprised! This outstanding Italian painter designed, among others, automatic weaving loom, diving apparatus, bicycle, alarm clock, contact lenses…. a centrifugal pump, ball bearings, pump valves…. These are just some of the works by this valued artist and constructor. It is impossible to mention all of them because there were several hundred of such projects. And although all of them were groundbreaking, they did not have a significant impact on the development of technology. The scientists also disagree about a possibility of implementing Leonardo da Vinci’s projects. Some believe that they were unrealistic at that time, others claim that some ideas were even made as models; however, they went beyond the epoch to such an extent that nobody was interested in them.
Flying iron eagle
Johannes Müller von Königsberg (1436 – 1476) better known as Regiomontanus
was a mathematician and astronomer of the German Renaissance. This German astronomer is believed to have built a flying iron eagle and a mechanical fly. An insect is said to have sat on the ruler’s hand during a presentation to Emperor Maximilian I. There are plenty of Regiomontanus’s inventions. Not only is he the creator of various astronomical devices, but he also worked on the calendar used by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Gaspar de India. The tables that he created while living in Hungary, his Tabulae directionum, were designed for astrology, including finding astrological houses. He also wrote horoscopes for kings and emperors.
The flute and the loom
When it comes to automation, Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782) must not be forgotten. This Frenchman was an outstanding inventor and the first person to design an automatic loom and built the first all-metal lathe. It was designed to produce precision cylindrical rollers for crushing specific patterns into silk cloth.
However, this was not the first mechanism that Jacques de Vaucanson constructed. At the Academy of Sciences in Paris in 1738 he presented The Flute Player, a life-size figure of a shepherd that played the tabor and the pipe and had a repertoire of twelve songs. The flute player had a built-in artificial tongue, lips and fingers whose movements regulated the air flow. Later that year he created two additional automata, The Tambourine Player and The Digesting Duck, which is considered his masterpiece and was inscribed in the history of computer science.
These are just a few curiosities from the world of automation, which appeared already in the ancient times. Some inventions were supposed to make life easier, but most of them were supposed to be fun and entertaining.