The Lost Robots

Uncovering the Forgotten Achievements of Ancient Inventors

Artificial Intelligence is the iconic controversy of our times. Yet, complex, even sophisticated robotics is not unique to early twenty-first century technology. Original, surprisingly ingenious examples were actually built and operated by long-lost civilizations, many thousands of years ago. And some android specimens were perhaps more advanced than current levels of applied science.

A pair of Roman-era texts describes literally hundreds of different kinds of machines capable of independent movement. Sometime before 70 CE, Pneumatica and Automata were authored by Heron of Alexandria, a teacher at the city’s Musaeum, adjacent to the famous Library, where most of his surviving writings appear as lecture notes for courses in mathematics, mechanics, physics, and pneumatics. Although the field was not formalized until the last century, Heron’s devices formed the first, formal research into cybernetics.

For example, self-driving vehicles are at the cutting edge of contemporary technology, but he built a programmable, self-propelled cart, powered by a falling weight, nearly two thousand years ago. Its “program” consisted of strings wrapped around the drive axle. Heron also invented many automated props and devices for the Greek theater, including a mechanical play. His three-wheeled, special effects platform carried other robots onto the stage, where they performed in front of audiences. The contraption was powered by a binary-like system of ropes and knots, and operated by a rotating, cylindrical cogwheel, while dropping mechanically timed metal balls onto a hidden drum to replicate the sound of thunder. A falling weight pulled a rope wrapped around the moving platform’s two, independent axles.

Varying the length wound around each axle enabled Heron to program different routines for the performing robots before each show. Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist at Britain’s University of Sheffield, relates this control system to modern day binary programming (Drachmann, Aage Gerhardt. The Mechanical Technology of Greek and Roman Antiquity, A Study of the Literary Sources. 1891-Imprint: Copenhagen, Munksgaard; Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1963).

Regarded today as the outstanding researcher of antiquity, Heron was not, however, the earliest genius of his kind but preceded by another Greek, the father of robotics. Ctesibius, the third century BCE inventor of the pipe organ, went on to construct a cam-operated automaton resembling a god that alternatively stood up and sat down during public processions. States Oxford physicist, Asim Qureshi, “later ancient engineers used his techniques on hydraulic systems.”


Between 806 and 820 CE, the Japanese inventor, Han Zhile, moved to China, where he was employed by the imperial court for creating “mechanical birds, phoenixes, cranes, crows, and magpies,” according to medical researchers, Ashok Kumar Hemal and Mani Meno (Robotics in Genitourinary Surgery. NY: Springer Publishing Company, 2011). “Though built of wood, some of the ornithological prototypes could be made to pretend to eat, drink, chirp, and warble like real birds. He is reported to have installed mechanical devices inside some of the birds to drive their wings to make them fly. He also created a mechanical cat.”

The ancient Chinese themselves excelled in advanced mechanics. A wooden humanoid atop a robotic cart developed by Zhang Heng (78 CE-139) pounded a drum when the self-propelled vehicle had traveled ten Li (3.7 miles) and struck a bell at the one hundred-Li mark.


Another humanoid was fashioned into the likeness of a Buddhist monk by an early Tang Dynasty craftsman, around 620 CE Yang Wulian’s creation begged for alms to be deposited in a copper bowl. When full, the animated figure bowed humbly, then deposited the offerings into a treasure chest (Sliding Autonomy for UAV Path-Planning: Adding New Dimensions to Autonomy Management, by Lanny Lin and Michael A. Goodrich, Department of Computer Science Brigham Young University.


According to Hemal and Meno, Yin Wenliang, a late fifth century CE mechanical engineer from Luozhou “created a wooden man and dressed him with an outfit made of colorful, worsted silk. At every banquet, the small wooden man would propose a toast to each guest in order. Yin Wenliang also made a wooden woman. She could play the sheng [an ancient Chinese pipe with thirteen reeds] and sing, and she did them in perfect rhythm. If a guest did not finish the wine in his cup, the wooden man wouldn’t refill the cup. If a guest did not drink enough wine, the wooden singing girl would play the sheng and sing for him to urge him to drink more.”

Yin Wenliang’s contemporary, Dafeng Ma, a skilled designer, constructed an automated dresser for the queen. Whenever she opened a full-length mirror, a robotic female brought washing paraphernalia and towels. When the towel was removed from the artificial servant’s, it automatically triggered the machine to back away into a closet

Ling Zhao built robots in 560 CE remarkable for their life-like appearance, especially skin and hair. Court historian, Ming Xin, told how the Northern Qi Dynasty monk excavated a pleasure pool at the base of a mountain on the orders of Emperor Wu Cheng. “After the pool was finished, Ling Zhao built a miniature boat with exquisite details and put it in the water. When the miniature boat flowed before the Emperor, he took a wine cup from it, and the boat would stop automatically. Then the small wooden man on the boat would clap its hands, and the boat would start to play music. When Emperor Wu Cheng finished drinking and put down the wine cup, the small wooden man would take the cup back to the boat. If Emperor Wu Cheng did not finish drinking the wine in the cup, the boat would stay there and would not leave.”

Ling Zhao’s earlier colleague, Lan Ling, fashioned “a robot that could dance,” as related by a mid sixth century CE text, the Chao Ye Qian Zai (“Stories of Government and People.” Beijing: Zhe Jiang Publishing United Group, 2013): “When the King wanted to offer a drink to a man, the robot would turn to that man, and bow to the man with the drink in his hand.”

Lan Ling’s life-like wine servant was long preceded by the third century BCE. Greek Philon of Byzantium, known as Mechanicus because of his impressive engineering skills, which included an automaton “in the form of a life-size woman. In her right hand, she held a wine jug. When a cup was placed in the palm of her left hand, she automatically poured wine first and then water to achieve the right mix. Both the wine and water were stored in metal jugs suspended in her chest.” 01/robotic-technologies-by-the-ancient-greeks-on-display/


She was detailed in Philon’s large treatise, Mechanike syntaxis, or “Compendium of Mechanics.” Her precise replica appeared just two years ago at an exhibition called “Amazing Inventions of the Ancient Greeks” featured by the Herakleidon Museum Annex, in central Athens. Like Heron of Alexandria mentioned above, Philon created an automated theater that dramatized the plots of popular myths with moving images, sound effects, and animated visuals.

Interestingly, Lan Ling’s automaton “looked like a man of a non-Chinese ethnic group,” suggesting its foreign origins. They may have gone back very far indeed. Chapter VII of the Hebrew Old Testament repeats an ancient Egyptian myth of possible predynastic provenance describing the younger brother of Osiris, who lived before a Great Flood had obliterated early civilization: “Rocail erected an enormous sepulcher adorned with statues of various metals, made by talismanic art, which moved and spake, and acted like living men” (D’Herbelot, i. p. 125, s. v. Rocail). Rocail’s Atlantean implications are not confined to biblical accounts.

“In an account of the sinking of Atlantis, taken from a secret commentary and given by H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine,” writes Theosophical researcher, David Reigle, “a kind of robot is mentioned (S.D. vol. 2, pp. 427–428). It is there called a ‘speaking animal’ or ‘speaking beast.’ In a footnote, Blavatsky reports that, according to the accounts, these were artificially made beasts, mechanical animals. In another footnote, Blavatsky reports that, according to Brahmachari Bawa [a late nineteenth century Hindu scholar], extensive Sanskrit treatises on such subjects once existed but are now lost.

“There is an existing Pali text, Loka-paññatti, Description of the World, that is largely based on lost Sanskrit texts [La Lokapañnatti et les idées cosmologiques du bouddhisme ancien, by Eugène Denis, 2 volumes, 1977. For the story of the robots, see the Pali text, pp. 157-159, and the French translation, pp. 141-143.]. It refers to such a robot in the words bhuta vahana yanta (Sanskrit: bhuta vahana yantra), literally, ‘elemental vehicle machine.’ These elemental-driven machines in the account given in the Loka-paññatti are used to protect the relics of the Buddha” (Robots in Atlantis, January 31, 2017.


If artificial intelligence did originate in Atlantis, something of its antediluvian roots may echo in the oldest mythic reference of Western Europe’s Classical Epoch. Talos, a robotic guard, appears in the Argonautica, an epic poem describing Jason’s quest for a Golden Fleece. When he and his Argonaut followers approached Crete, they were bombarded by boulders hurled at them by a bronze warrior programmed to protect the Aegean island from all outsiders by patrolling its shores three times daily. The Argonauts nonetheless make landfall and overcome their giant opponent, when Jason’s soon-to-be-betrayed fiancé, Medea, pulls a bronze nail out of the defending automaton’s heel. From it gushes a fluid known as ichor, draining this vital “blood of the gods” from Talos, until he collapses into a heap of broken, lifeless metal.

“Talos is far more than a mere curio amid other tales of gods and heroes,” observes How Stuff Works writer, Robert Lamb. “While myths can reveal much about history and culture, this episode also concerns the nature of technology. In its towering stature, we see the elite nature of bronze craftsmanship at the time, as well as the military prowess of bronze weaponry. It was an age of peak bronze technology.

“Talos is something special, even to modern humans. He’s the embodiment of technological achievement and divine power intertwined in a single mythic being … Talos is remarkably futuristic, anticipating the scientific possibilities of the present age and, even then, belonging more with the bizarre imaginings of the new mythology of science fiction than with the mechanisms created and used in real life.

This killer robot stares back at us from the mists of ancient human civilization, reflecting the attitudes of its time but also challenging us to consider the ramifications of artistic and technological creation. What are the limits of the modern Talos’ might? Despite the never-ending onslaught of sci-fi killer robots, these questions remain as enthralling as ever.” January 8, 2018


Such timelessness applies as much to their modern significance, as to their origins. Although Classical scholars have dated composition of the Argonautica from 283 to 221 BCE, the basic story was “already well known to Hellenistic audiences, which enabled Apollonius [Apollonius Rhodius] to go beyond a simple narrative, giving it a scholarly emphasis suitable to the times. It was the age of the great Library of Alexandria,” when Heron of Alexandria was himself at work on his robotic creations.


Detailed images preceded the Argonautica by at least one-hundred-fifty years to a depiction of Talos on a Cretan coin from Phaistos, a major Minoan city, together with his image on Greek vase-paintings and Etruscan mirrors. “On one hand,” writes Lamb, “Talos stands as a potential metaphor for the might of bronze technology during the Greek Bronze Age, stretching from 3200 to 1200 BCE.” In fact, some versions of Talos portray him as the last survivor of an ancient race of bronze men; i.e., the last survivors of the Late Bronze Age? In Linear B, the ancient Cretan language, “Talos” was synonymous for the “Sun,” and the Minoans worshipped Zeus as Zeus Tallaios. Tallaia is the Linear B name (perhaps derived from the older, still untranslatable, more originally Minoan Linear A) for a spur of the Ida mountain range, where the Zeus cult was centered inside his cathedral-like cave, the Ideon antron, the “Navel of the World.” All these cultural fragments tend to posit the birth of Talos long before the Argonautica was composed, and well into the Bronze Age, which he appears to have personified.

It was originally, perhaps, a kind of technologically advanced device that inspired Archimedes to build his own wonder weapon, “a precursor to the industrial robotic arm found in modern factories.” Known as the ‘Claw,’ it saw action against the Roman invaders of Syracuse, in 213 BCE, as described by the Greek historian, Polybius. When the enemy approached, its “giant hand swooped down on a target vessel and lifted the ship’s prow out of the water and stood it up vertically on its stern” (Polybius, The Histories. Oxford University Press, 2010). “The Claw was an application of the two laws of Archimedes: the Law of the Lever and Law of Buoyancy,” writes Qureshi, “Recent tests show that building this live crane device was possible at the time.”

If weaponized robots are as much dreaded today as their application was in antiquity, another anxious concern regarding the immediate future of artificial intelligence is its forecast capability for determining and enforcing its own concept of world government. That function, too, was prefigured by ancient robotics, as long ago as 1100 BCE, when New Kingdom priests of Amun documented “moving statues,” during the late twentieth dynasty. This was a tumultuous period of mixed crisis and innovation, when pharaoh Ramses III successfully defended the Nile Delta from a massive invasion by the Atlantean-like Meshwesh, or “Sea Peoples,” followed by the construction of his stupendous Victory Temple at Medinet Habu in Lower Egypt.

After his assassination, the “moving statues” reportedly chose his successor from male members of the royal family. “It is entirely possible that these artifacts were built,” declares Qureshi. “Ancient Egyptians had enough knowledge of mechanics to develop a non-digitized machine based on a system of ropes and pulleys.”

Sadly, all these robotic creations vanished with the fifth century collapse of Greco-Roman Civilization, followed some four-hundred-thirty years later by China’s own dark ages, hard on the heels of her Tang Dynasty’s demise. While our modern world is relearning some of the old secrets of Philon of Byzantium or Ling Zhao, we might do better to first understand how and why they lost their civilizations.


CAPTION: The ‘iron claw,’ built by Archimedes, appearing in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, Italy. (Painted by Giulio Parigi, in 1599 or 1600)

By Frank Joseph