From what I’ve gathered the quality of the History Channel’s programming has been in a downward spiral in the last few years, what with their stupid shows about ghosts and aliens and such. Nevertheless, there’s a show called Modern Marvels and a shorter series called Ancient Discoveries that both did episodes on robots.
Modern Marvels: Robots
Modern Marvels’ episode takes a look at the history of mobile robots in the United States. The show begins with the original Shakey and Stanford Cart, all the way up to the massive field robots developed by Red Whittaker at Carnegie Mellon to deal with nuclear accidents. It’s particularly interesting because there really weren’t any machines (robots or otherwise) capable of dealing with these sorts of disasters before Whittaker and his team began developing them.
While some have criticized Japan for failing to build practical robots capable of dealing with situations like the Fukushima plant, the United States was in the same position when the meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island reactor. Whittaker jokes that the start-up he founded was the robotics equivalent of an ambulance chaser, making bank on the backs of disasters as they happened. It then goes into some of the early legged robots and autonomous vehicles.
Though it does touch very lightly on humanoids, it almost goes out of its way to tiptoe around Japan’s dominance in that area (perhaps not to upset WW2 buffs, the History Channel’s target demographic). Instead of Japanese humanoids (of which only familiar clips of Honda’s P2 are shown despite the episode airing in 2004!), it focuses on the comparably simplistic animatronics for entertainment and Nolan Bushnell’s failed household robotics venture Androbot. Even though our beloved humanoids are not the focus of the episode, it’s still a history lesson worth taking, though its American bias is slightly annoying.
Modern Marvels also did a couple of episodes with robotic tangents (“Super Human” has a short segment on Raytheon SARCOS’s exoskeleton). See a complete episode list at IMDB.
Ancient Discoveries: Robots
This episode is only about 40 minutes long, and looks at ancient automatons and the longstanding human obsession with creating robotic beings, with commentary from Prof. Noel Sharkey. It begins with Leonardo Da Vinci’s mechanical knight, which has been recreated based on his schematics. The suit of armor contained an intricate assemblage of gears and pulleys that would move its arms and legs. Historians think it may have been made to hug people with both arms when being demonstrated, which would have been quite surprising for crowds of onlookers.
If you can stomach the crude CGI examples from Greek mythology, there’s some cool replicas of ancient automata a bit later. Heron of Alexandria and Philon of Byzantium are credited with inventing mechanisms still used today, like cams and pneumatics, and various automata that can be recreated from surviving diagrams. Model makers demonstrate several replicas, and they’re all pretty nifty. Some of the more impressive examples include a fountain with singing metallic birds that contained water warblers, and a coin-operated water and soap dispenser.
Though it is filled with hyperbolic speculation about what our ancestors actually built, it’s definitely entertaining to see the replicas of ancient automata from around the world, including a few from China and Baghdad. It concludes with a sophisticated replica of Leonardo’s walking lion, which justifies the episode on its own. Unfortunately clockwork automata from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries are not covered outside of the famous Japanese tea server (see some examples here).
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