10 Robots and Machines From the History Books

People often think of artificial intelligence as something akin to the being from the film 'I, Robot' depicted here, but experts are divided on what the future actually holds. (Photo: 20th Century Fox).

Humanity has toyed with the idea of robots since well before modern times. Homer wrote in the "Iliad" that the Greek god Hephaestus created golden mechanical handmaidens. Through the centuries, inventors have spent considerable brain power and energy devising ways that machines could aid man. Originally known as automatons, or self-operating machines, the word "robot" was popularized by a 1921 play called "R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)" by Czech author Karel Capek. But long before this text was published, the road to artificial intelligence was already well-paved. Here are some of the famous robots and machines from the history books.

1. Al-Jazari's robot band (1206)

Al-Jazari's Robot Band, 1206
Al-Jazari's Robot Band, 1206. Wikimedia Commons

Al-Jazari was an Iraqi inventor who lived during the Islamic Golden Age. Described as a "scholar, inventor, mechanical engineer, craftsman, artist, mathematician and astronomer," he built automated peacocks, drink-serving waitresses, and servants — all of them powered by water. Pictured here is his Robot Band, which is a "boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties."

2. Leonardo da Vinci's robot (1495)

da Vinci robot
A recreation of a suit of robotic armor based on Leonard da Vinci's sketches. Wikimedia Commons

Famed inventor Leonardo da Vinci created plans for this humanoid robot in 1495. It was to be a mechanical knight that could move its head, jaw and arms. According to da Vinci's drawings, it could even sit up. Pictured here is a recreation of da Vinci's robot, built in 2007 by researchers in Milan.

3. Spinning Mule (1779)

Spinning Mule
The spinning mule. Wikimedia Commons

Early robots were born from the need to build machines that could assist mankind in time-consuming tasks. Samuel Crompton's Spinning Mule was a variation of the Spinning Jenny, an invention in 1764 that greatly increased production speed for the weaving industry. The Spinning Mule was the first automated, power-driven (meaning by man) spinning machine. It could weave up to 100 threads at once.

4. Difference Engine (1822)

A recreation of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2
A recreation of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2 is exhibited at the Computer History Museum. Marcin Wichary/Wikimedia Commons

Charles Babbage designed the Difference Engine in 1822. Described as "an automatic, mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions," it is considered one of the earliest "programmable" machines. It was powered by simply cranking a handle. The London Science Museum created this machine based on Babbage's plans, completing it in 1991.

5. Gakutensoku (1929)

Gakutensoku, Japan's First Robot
Gakutensoku, Japan's first robot. Wikimedia Commons

Gakutensoku, translated as "learning from the laws of nature," was the first robot to be built in Osaka, Japan, in 1929. Created by biologist Makoto Nishimura, the robot could move its face, head and hands via an air-pressure system. Gakutensoku went missing during a tour of Germany in the 1930s. In 2008, the Osaka Science Museum created a replica.

6. Unimate (1961)

Unimate robot
courtesy Robot Hall of Fame.

The Unimate was the first industrial robot. (Courtesy of Robot Hall of Fame)

In the early 1940s, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov coined the phrase robotics. Around this time, robots also became prominent in the industrial sector. Pictured here is the Unimate, the first industrial robot. The concept for Unimate was developed by inventor George Devol — who died at the age of 99 in August 2011 — and General Motors bought the device, installing it on an assembly line in 1961.

7. Shakey (1972)

Shakey the robot on display the Computer History Museum
Shakey the robot on display the Computer History Museum. Marshall Astor/Wikimedia Commons

Shakey is considered "the first mobile robot to be able to reason about its own actions." The robot was developed at the Artificial Intelligence laboratory of SRI International from 1966 to 1972. Shakey could receive instructions by keyboard and then break down the request into a series of tasks. Shakey was inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame in 2004 alongside C-3PO of "Star Wars" fame.

8. AIBO (1999)

AIBO, Sony's robotic dog
AIBO, Sony's robotic dog. Kate Nevens/flickr

AIBO, which infers "pal" in Japanese, was one of several robotic pets created by Sony. AIBO could see via a camera and could recognize commands spoken in English or Spanish. AIBO and the others also had the ability to "learn and mature." With the use of a memory stick, the robot dog could learn and develop as its owner played with it. AIBO was discontinued in 2006.

9. Honda ASIMO Robot (2000)

Honda ASIMO Robot
Honda Asimo Robot on display at Expo 2005 in Japan. Wikimedia Commons

ASIMO, which looks like a child robot, was created in Japan by Honda. It is about 4 feet and 3 inches tall. ASIMO, which stands for "Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility," has a long list of accomplishments. The robot can walk alongside a human holding hands, recognize objects, interpret gestures, distinguish sounds and even be integrated into a user's network.

10. DER 01 Actroid (2005)

The Actroid on display at the 2005 Expo Aichi Japan. Wikimedia Commons

Actroid is a humanoid robot, or android, meaning it has a close resemblance to a human. The first of its kind was initially revealed in Japan in the early 21st century. Designed to look like Japanese women, the robots have air actuators that allow them to have as many as "47 points of articulation" — or parts of the body that make movement look natural. In 2005, Actroids were released into the private market, selling for as much as $20,000.

Photo credit for drawing of Al-Jazari's robot band: Wikimedia Commons