The 20th and 21st centuries are full of stories of robots, androids and automatons but did you know tales of synthetic beings were told well before that? Hundreds of years, in fact?
The earliest accounts of human-made artificial people came from the stories and legends of old. However, you may not consider them robots since they largely revolved around statues of various composition coming to life through various means. For example, Galatea of Pygmalion was made of ivory, there’s a woman made of gold and silver in the prehistoric Finnish epic poem The Kalevala and Pandora of Greek myth was created by clay (creation myth alert!).
But there are examples of mechanical creations from back then. In the epic classic the Iliad, Hephaestus (who sculpted the aforementioned Pandora and all the creatures of the world) had a pair of animated statues made of gold as assistants. As the god of most anything made with your hands, it would stand to reason that he’d figure out a way to make a self-propelling automaton.
Tales of Brazen Heads (aka “talking heads”) which could answer any yes or no question, gained popularity in medieval times in various regions as European scholars explored Arabian scientific tomes.
Edmund Spenser published The Faerie Queene, an epic but incomplete poem centered on knights and the examination of virtues, in the 1590s. One of the poems featured Talus — a flail-wielding man-bot that never slept and never stopped pursuing bad guys until they were brought to justice.
The presence of automatons picked up steam in the 1800s with E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann, Edward S. Ellis’ The Steam Man of the Prairies, Frank Reade and his Electric Man by Luis Senarens and Auguste Williers de I’llsele-Adam’s The Future Eve (which is credited with popularizing the term “android”) among others.
As we enter the 20th century, we begin to see the most iconic fictional robots emerge. Literature is wonderful but TV and film boosted the reach of science fiction and fantasy exponentially. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, a dystopic urban science fiction film that prominently features the female android Futura, is considered one of the most influential films in history. Serial films in the ‘40s like Flash Gordon and Superman often featured robot henchmen. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, Astro Boy, The Jetsons and Doctor Who are just scratching the surface of the boom in the 1950s and ‘60s.