Continuing our dive in Tech History, today we will discuss automation in general. From the weird computers of ancient times, to our modern day, we will be discussing the interesting steps that led automation to become the juggernaut that it is today. So without further ado, lets begin with the simple question: "What Is Automation?".

According to Wikipedia: Automation, or Labor-saving technology is the technology by which a process or procedure is performed with minimal human assistance.[1] Automation[2] or automatic control is the use of various control systems for operating equipment such as machinery, processes in factories, boilers and heat treating ovens, switching on telephone networks, steering and stabilization of ships, aircraft and other applications and vehicles with minimal or reduced human intervention. Automation covers applications ranging from a household thermostat controlling a boiler, to a large industrial control system with tens of thousands of input measurements and output control signals. In control complexity, it can range from simple on-off control to multi-variable high-level algorithms.

Ancient Times

Oh boy the ancient times! Contrary to popular belief, the very concept of automation is seen from way before even the concept of Democracy came to be. As a matter of fact, in the ancient Greek epics, there are mentions of constructs of men that were animated not by magic but by machinery called Automata, and one cannot disregard the tale of Talos, the ancient Minoan giant robot that hurled rocks to sink enemy ships from great distances.

In an article by Classical Wisdom we quote: "The Greeks were able to design and build self-directed machines. There is evidence that they built a bronze automaton of an eagle and a dolphin that were on display at the Olympic Games. Many of the automatons developed were only toys, such as the birds invented by Archytas (c. 428 – 347 BC). However, one inventor known as Philon of Byzantium (c. 280 BC – 220 BC), invented a repeating crossbow. It seems that in the Hellenistic period, developments in automation really advanced. In this period inventors used a complex system of levers, pulleys and wheels to build self-directed machinery. Rhodes became well known for its machine and there were two automatons in one of its main squares, to impress visitors. A book on automation, On Automaton-Making, was written by the mathematician-engineer, Hero of Alexandria, and in it he described many of his automatons and self-operating machines. These included hydraulic systems, fire engines, wind-operated machines, and even a self-propelled cart. He also invented a number of war machines. It appears that in Alexandria there was a theatre that consisted only of automatons, who performed dramas for audiences."


But automation was not only used for that and certainly not only in Greece. From religious purposes, to storage, to traps to safeguard tombs, automation started to kick in the ancient times pretty fast. In the end of the day however, the best quote to summarize the quest for automation, I found in this article by Gizmoto in which they quote: "“I propose this: we”—humans—“are the beast that automates.” That’s a claim made by Dr. Antone Martinho-Truswell, a zoologist at the University of Sydney. “The bow and arrow is probably the first example of automation,” he wrote. “When humans strung the first bow, towards the end of the Stone Age, the technology put the task of hurling a spear on to a very simple device. Once the arrow was nocked and the string pulled, the bow was autonomous, and would fire this little spear further, straighter and more consistently than human muscles ever could.”"

Photo By Daniel Tuttle on Unsplash

Medieval Times

It might surprise you to learn that there was considerable mechanical innovation in the medieval period. These medieval machines included mechanical water and steam powered clocks, mechanical knights and archers, bronze heads that revealed the future, and automated gardens complete with metallic singing birds. In her book  Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art, E.R. Truitt discusses exactly such things, and the review of it you can find here. However, the majority of automations from the middle ages I have found were mostly oriented from Anatolia and the east, and as the review states: "For the Christian West, knowledge of automata in the medieval period was associated with knowledge of the natural world—but also with demons and demonic influence. Thus, Latins had to overcome fears both sacred (in terms of dark or demonic magic) and secular (the association of automata with foreign courts) in order to integrate automata into their own societies by the mid-15th century."

Badi al-Zaman Abu al-Izz Ismail ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari - known as Ismail al-Jazari for short - was a Muslim scholar and polymath born in 1136 in Diyarbakır, Anatolia, in what is now modern Turkey. He served as a royal engineer at the Artuqid Palace during the 12th century at a time known as the "Islamic Golden Age". He is widely revered for his masterwork, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, which he wrote at the request of Nasiruddin Mahmud, the Artuqid sultan.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

In his book, al-Jazari explained the construction of his devices and automata, from water-raising machines to fountains, complete with illustrations and instructions that gave engineers the opportunity to reuse them. Mehmed Ali Caliskan, the founder and general manager of the project to reconstruct the medieval robotics, is himself an engineer. "We think that if we can revitalise his fabulous world, combining mechanics, science, art and philosophy, this would inspire a lot of people like us," he says. "Our biggest motivation was to carry this inspiration to the masses." This article has great content on the matter.

Post Medieval

The story of automation as we think of it today begun during the renaissance period with the famous concepts of Michelangelo. With concepts of automation developing in the west as well as the east, the road was set for the industrial revolution, where modern terms, fears and views of automation came into play.

I will not go into much detail here, as there are plenty of articles you can find on the subject matter on post medieval automation, such as this one by Encyclopedia Britannica or even the Wikipedia page on automation. Needles to say, the industrial revolution was truly a pivoting point in history, not only for automation but for socio-economic change.

Final Thoughts

During my research during the past two weeks on Automation and Machine learning i found it fascinating how the entire concept of Automation and AI had changed throughout history. From the hopeful inception of a world without labor, allowing humanity to pursue a life of leisure and enjoyment, to the worried looks of "automations taking over" as concerns of losing ones job started to first show.

Regardless of the case, Automation is always a fascinating subject to me, as it is indeed a marvelous form, one might say an artistic one as well, that can be wielded for good or ill. Whatever the case, lets see what the future will hold.

Photo by Frank V. at Unsplash

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