Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Medieval Robots by E. R. Truitt

One of my early childhood fixations was the golden peacock clock in the Hermitage in Leningrad. Now, here is a whole book about ancient automata, combining my interests in Medieval history and AI! I listened to the audio version, which perhaps impoverished my experience of "reading", assuming the non-audio book includes the beautiful paintings, illustrations, and diagrams described in prose.

This was an academic and dry read overall. I liked the overall arc of the work, but often found the author getting a bit lost in the details. The book initially focuses on automata of antiquity and the Islamic world, a fascinating and unusual lens on already fascinating civilizations. The medieval European reaction to these suspicious contraptions, and how they inspired fictional accounts of automata in European culture follows, until the narrative is capped with later medieval European automata and clocks in particular. Overall a cogent narrative, but some sections feel unnecessary, especially the disturbing chapter 4.

We begin in early Greece, where work on automata was chronicled by Hiro of Alexandria, who built various steam based contraptions. The Antikythera mechanism was only recently uncovered, a complex, dynamic stellar map operated by hand crank dating back to 80 BCE. These works along with much of the rest of the Greek tradition were unknown to the medieval Europeans but preserved via the Arabic world (see Lost Enlightenment by Frederick Starr). During the Islamic enlightenment, many such contraptions were built. Al-Khwarizmi and many other famous Islamic scholars had a role to play in the automata creation too.

Islamic automata

Europeans were first exposed to automata from the Abbasids and Byzantines via gifts. It wasn’t until Harun al-Rashid gifted Charlemagne a mechanical water fountain that the west renewed their interest in automata. Fictional and legendary automata began appearing in chivalric romances. The vast majority of early and high middle age writings on the topic were unsurprisingly in French (see Old French was spoken across a lot of Europe, hence Lingua Franca).

Most automata from this period do not exist, so all we have are writings of dubious reliability. For example, The Throne of Solomon, a Byzantine automaton was described by a Carolingian writer, who emphasized lions that roared and birds that chirped, as well as a mysteriously rising throne. Reminds me of Baron Vladimir Harkonen from Dune (Lynch, Villeneuve). The Carolingian work offered some, but surprisingly little speculation about how the Throne of Solomon worked. Perhaps a rising wine press mechanism? The sounds were likely pipe organ-like pneumatic devices, but the author did not speculate about this aspect at all.

Another famous automaton was the Elephant clock (from Ismail al-Jazari's Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices), a Clepsydra, or water clock with ornate design and automaton functionality. It was far superior to that found in Charlemagne’s court. The technology and craftsmanship was next level. The cost to make it as well as the precision of the timepiece is far beyond candle clocks and sundials that the Frankish contemporaries were using at the time.

Fictional automata in Europe

Chanson de Geste (Chivalric Romances in English) often featured a binary contrast between eastern cleverness and western faith. This is described in Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne, a story about Charlemagne’s visit to the fictional Byzantine Emperor Hugo. In the narrative, Hugo is depicted as being superior in riches, technology and cleverness. But God stands by the side of the western Roman emperor, as Charlemagne's faith prevailed over Hugo's dubious Orthodoxy.

One vignette from the Benoit's Roman de Troie, a Chivalric Epic about the Trojan War, stood out. In it, four golden automata in the Chambre de Beaute do various tasks around social control. One holds a mirror that helps you be presentable. The last is a robot that gives everyone perfect personalized social cues so that nobody loses face.

Another fictional automata described a contraption resembling a bronze knight with a spear, which whenever a Roman province threatened revolt, would point in its geographical direction. This magic is attributed to Virgil (what). Also, archers and buglers were often to be fictional automata that safeguarded cities from natural disaster or from barbarians. In one account, Naples had such guardians to warn its population about Vesuvius.

An automaton is not the same as a wine press. Because automata fall into the category of natura artifex and is more than just craftsmanship. There’s a god like element to that endeavor. Medieval Europeans would sometimes attribute the almost supernatural technology that they saw from the east to their superior civilization. But in other cases these automata would be attributed more to demonic means; sometimes to necromancy, sometimes to just being extremely vicious and vile. This helped confirm European superstitions. See Natura artifex — God, nature, and humanity.

I really struggled through Chapter 4, "The Quick and the Dead" and nearly dropped the book. It features detailed and disgusting descriptions of a fictional automaton designed to preserve Hector of Troy's body by running alcoholic liquid through his embalmed corpse. Far too many details about balm, balsam, and other preservation techniques were both disgusting and overly detailed.

European late medieval automata

Chapter 5 returns back to the core theme of the book, this time describing real automata from the late European Middle Ages.

The automata described in the chivalric romances purport to do advanced things like maintaining the social milieu of a royal court and other fantastical things still far beyond modernity's ability.

In contrast, real automata of the late Middle Ages were quite simple. The court of Phillip II, for example, featured a room full of automata which embodied practical jokes, focusing mainly on surprising guests and making ladies clothes wet from above and, as emphasized in the chronicles, from below. These childish pranks mainly provided an endless source of entertainment for the royal class, but also served a more sinister function, separating those "in the know" from the outsiders.

The makers and maintainers of these automata in the 14th and 15th centuries tended to be painters. Painters of that era were highly respected, and typically oversaw groups of artisans to create the giant masterworks that they ended up creating.

Fascinating that the etymology of the word engine is from in engineer, or I guess in genius and genius, and it's just engineering. Is it also the same route where it's all about this ingenuity and genius

The escapement mechanism is almost a millennium old. A really great description of how it works can be found in this masterpiece explaining how mechanical watches work.


Strasbourg Horloge is a really famous and elaborate Clark in Strasbourg. Inspired Robert Boyle Renee to cards and tons of others that took a mechanistic view of the human condition. Including Thomas Hobbes.

The Latin word for bell is "clocca", which is the etymology of the word clock. So clocks and timekeeping have always been associated with more than just the abstract notion of time, but also some kind of action. And thus they are intimately linked to automata.

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