The term “robot” was coined in the 1920s, so it’s tempting to think of the robot as a relatively recent phenomenon, less than 100 years old. After all, how could we bring metal men to life before we could harness electricity and program computers? But the truth is, robots are thousands of years old.
The first records of automata, or self-operating machines that give the illusion of being alive, go back to ancient Greece and China. While it’s true none of these ancient androids could pass the Turing Test, neither could early 20th-century robots—it’s only in the last 60 years that scientists began to develop “artificial brains.” But during the European Renaissance, machinists built life-size, doll-like automata that could write, draw, or play music, producing the startling illusion of humanity. By the late 19th century, these magical machines had reached their golden age, with a wide variety of automata available in high-end Parisian department stores, sold as parlor amusements for the upper middle class.
One of the largest publicly held collections of automata, including 150 such Victorian proto-robots, lives at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, as part of the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection, which also features 750 mechanical musical instruments, from music boxes and reproducing pianos to large orchestrions and band organs.