Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Overlords

Somebody recently paid $5.8 million at auction for a unique pair of antique pistols. I think they got a bargain:



When our girls were 16, Karen and I took them on our first (and to date only) family trip to Europe, cruising around the Mediterranean. Very near the top of my list of most delightful discoveries was the National Museum of Monaco, which we stumbled upon just wandering around the city-state after forgoing the organized tours. We figured, "It's a museum, the price is OK . . . ehh, let's take a look." It turned out to be entirely dedicated to old dolls and automatons--ingenious wind-up robots built in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

My girls and I approaching the Museum.

We had the place almost to ourselves and had just started up a staircase when a docent came rushing down, herding us with his arms and commanding us in rapid-fire French (which none of us understand) to turn around and descend. We wondered if we'd done something wrong and were being thrown out. But it turned out we'd arrived just in time for the tour, and our guide took us from display to display, wound them up, and stood back to watch our amazement. The automatons had the most incredible life-like action. Graceful, delicate, even poignant. Some of them breathed.

The automaton in the video below wasn't in our museum, but she's pretty representative of the sort of that was:



One of the things that interests and amuses me about history in general, and the history of science and technology in particular, is the subconscious arrogance most of us carry around. We seem to think we're smarter than all the generations that came before us. We're not. To paraphrase Newton, if we see farther, it's only because we're standing on their shoulders. Never, ever underestimate the ingenuity of a person in any century trying to solve a problem or make something work. Look at what skilled craftsmen could accomplish with gears and springs (and without electricity) two centuries ago!
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2 comments:

Namowal said...

No comments? I think automatons are amazing. Especially centuries-old ones that rival their Disney park counterparts.

Brian Fies said...

I know! What's wrong with people? Some of these machines make Disney's Mr. Lincoln look like a steam shovel.