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Leonardo’s Robotics

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When people think of robots most will mention a movie that had a one. They don’t think a device that automatically performs a complicated task, such as an industrial assembly line. They may think of ASIMO, a humanoid robot created by Honda in the 2000’s. The study of robots takes us back to the ancient Greek times, with stories of the automatons of Hephaestus.

In Greek mythology Automatons were self-operating machines made from metal. Most, created by Hephaestus, and some by famous Greek inventor Daedalus. He used quicksilver to install a voice in these machines. Sadly, none of these automatons were ever recovered. During the Middle Ages, automatons were popular as part of clocks and religious worship. The Arab polymath Al-Jazari left writings explaining his mechanical devices, including a large elephant clock that moved and chimed at the hour, a musical robot band and a waitress automaton that served drinks.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about automatons, and his personal notebooks are littered with ideas of mechanical creations ranging from a hydraulic water clock to a robotic lion. The most interesting of his plans for an artificial man in the form of an armoured Germanic knight. According to Da Vinci’s sketches the knight was to be powered by an external mechanical crank and use cables and pulleys to sit, stand, turn its head, cross its arms and even lift its metal visor. No complete drawings of the automaton exist today but some think that Da Vinci may have built a prototype in 1495 while working under the Duke of Milan.

In Europe, Juanelo Turriano built an automaton resembling Franciscan friar Diego de Alcalá. Finished around the 1560s, the 15-inch-tall automaton is powered by a wound spring and uses an assortment of iron cams and levers to move on three small wheels concealed beneath its monk’s robe. It was able step up and down to imitate walking, and the friar’s eyes, lips and head all move in lifelike gestures. These elements give the impression of a monk deep in prayer. The robot can walk in a square pattern mouthing devotionals, nodding its head and occasionally beating its chest with its right arm and kissing a rosary and cross with its left. The 450-year-old device is still works today, and is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson created the first successful biomechanical automaton, a human figure that plays a flute.

In 1642, at the age of 18, Blaise Pascal invented and build the first digital calculator as a means of helping his father perform tedious tax accounting. The device was called Pascal’s calculator or the Pascaline or the Arithmetique. Pascal continued to make improvements to his design through the next decade and built fifty Pascaline machines in total.

In the 1730s, French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical flute player that used a pair of artificial “lungs” to perform a repertoire of 12 songs, and later made a pipe-and-drum-wielding robot capable of playing faster than any human. In 1739, he unveiled a “Digesting Duck” that could flap its wings, splash in a pool of water and eat grain from audience members’ hands and defecate pre-loaded pellets onto a silver platter. The gilded copper automaton was powered by falling weights that turned a sophisticated collection of cams and levers to replicate movement.

In France 1801, Joseph Marie Jacquard created a loom that enabled unskilled workers to weave complex patterns in silk. The Jacquard Loom is controlled by a chain of multiple cards punched with holes that determine which cords of the fabric warp should be raised for each pass of the shuttle.

In 1898, Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first radio-controlled vessel, the tele automaton. It used small, radio-transmitting box, used to control a tiny ship about a pool of water and even flash its running lights on and off, wirelessly.

In 1913, Henry Ford installs the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an entire automobile. His innovation reduced the time it took to build a car from more than 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes. Elektro, developed by Westinghouse Electric Corp., became the first humanoid robot to be exhibited to the public, shown at the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fairs.

In 1942, Isaac Asimov’s came up with ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence if such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In 1948, Elsie Elmer and William Grey Walter developed the first robots to exhibit biological behaviour. George Devol created the first commercial robot, Unimate, in 1956, which became the first installed industrial robot in 1961. George Charles Devol, Jr., American inventor transformed modern manufacturing when he devised the first programmable robotic arm, in 1954. The robotic Unimate was introduced that same year and was quickly adopted for automotive assembly lines, where it became an industry standard and paved the way for an industrial robotics revolution.

GE Walking Truck 1968, The Walking Truck was developed by Ralph S Mosher for General Electric under a commission in 1966 from the US Army. The operator’s hands controlled the two front legs while his feet operated the two back legs. Although it was said to be easy to control, operators were fatigued after something like 15 minutes due to the stress of coordinating the positions of the four legs using only manual control of the hydraulic servos, no computers were used.

ABB Robot Group introduced the world’s first microcomputer-controlled electric industrial robot, called IRB 6, in 1974. The robot was delivered to a small mechanical engineering company in Sweden. That robot was patented since 1972. Victor Scheinman introduced the first programmable universal manipulation arm in 1975.

In December 1996 Honda stunned the world when it unveiled the P2, the most advanced humanoid robot ever built up to that time. It is considered the world’s first self-regulating two-legged humanoid walking robot. The torso contained a computer, motor drives, battery, wireless radio and other necessary technology, all of which were built in. Independent walking at 2km/h, walking up and down stairs, cart pushing, and other operations were achieved without wires.

The Mars Pathfinder was launched December 4, 1996 and landed on Mars’ Ares Vallis on July 4, 1997. It was designed as a technology demonstration of a new way to deliver an instrumented lander and the first-ever robotic rover to the surface of the red planet. Pathfinder not only accomplished this goal but also returned an unprecedented amount of data and outlived its primary design life.

In 2002, ASIMO created from two decades of humanoid robotics research by Honda engineers. ASIMO can run, walk on uneven slopes and surfaces, turn smoothly, climb stairs, and reach for and grasp objects. ASIMO can also comprehend and respond to simple voice commands. ASIMO can recognize the face of a select group of individuals. Using its camera eyes, ASIMO can map its environment and register stationary objects. ASIMO can also avoid moving obstacles as it moves through its environment.

Today, Robots are typically designed as automated machines that can take the place of humans. Most robotic machines can be seen in manufacturing lines, such as widely used in the auto industry. Robots are also utilized to replace humans in dangerous situations. In 1997, Carnegie Mellon’s Hans Moravec coined a new term, “Generation Robots,” which was used to describe the level of advancement of robots. Moravec predicted in 1997 that first-generation robots should carry the intelligence of lizards by 2010. First-gen robots would be incapable of learning, however, leading to the rise of second-gen robots, which have the intelligence comparable to that of a mouse and be available by 2020. He went on to say third-gen robots should have the intelligence of monkeys and fourth-gen robots with the intelligence of humans. Moravec predicted human AI in robots would be possible by 2040-2050. Now, Robotics can be broken down into dozens of subfields and includes everything from biomechanics to nanoengineering and artificial intelligence to behavioural science. Robots have come a long way since the early days of robotic innovation. We now have robots in our workplaces, robots in our homes, and even on the International Space Station. Technological advancements improve every day, we may see robots that can think, act and evolve on their own someday soon.  

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