“Leonardo’s robot” refers to a humanoid automaton designed by Leonardo da Vinci around the year 1495. Leonardo displayed his automaton at a celebration hosted by Ludovico Sforza at the court of Milan in 1495. The automaton or ‘robot’ knight could stand, sit, raise its visor and independently maneuver its arms. The entire automaton system was operated by a series of pulleys and cables. Since the discovery of the sketchbook, the automaton has been built faithfully based on Leonardo’s design; this proved it was fully functional, as Leonardo had planned.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s “mechanical lion” was the star attraction at a pageant in honor of the newly crowned King of France, Francois I. According to G. P. Lomazzo, the Lion was presented to the King by Giuliano de’ Medici in Lyon, on July 12th, 1515. Made with a “wonderful artifice,” the Lion was set in motion.
The idea described by Leonardo Da Vinci for a mechanical lion has been turned into reality by a French museum dedicated to the Italian artist. Da Vinci’s original “mechanical lion” has been long lost, but in 2009, it was reconstructed at the Château du Clos Lucé and Parc, in France. The Château was where Da Vinci spent his last three years of life, dying there in 1519.
The word “automaton” is the latinization of the Greek αὐτόματον, automaton, (neuter) “acting of one’s own will”. It is more often used to describe non-electronic moving machines, especially those that have been made to resemble human or animal actions, such as the jacks on old public striking clocks, or the cuckoo and any other animated figures on a cuckoo clock.
Leonardo da Vinci’s The humanoid automaton was clad in German-Italian medieval armour, and was able to make several human-like motions. These motions included sitting up, moving its arms, neck, and an anatomically correct jaw. Also it was most likely planned to be made with fluidity in combat. It is partially the fruit of Leonardo’s anatomical research in the Canon of Proportions as described in the Vitruvian Man.
The Renaissance witnessed a considerable revival of interest in automata. Giovanni Fontana created mechanical devils and rocket-propelled animal automata. Numerous clockwork automata were manufactured in the 16th century, principally by the goldsmiths of the Free Imperial Cities of central Europe. These wondrous devices found a home in the cabinet of curiosities or Wunderkammern of the princely courts of Europe. Hydraulic and pneumatic automata, similar to those described by the Greek mathematician Hero of Alexandria (sometimes known as Heron).
A model of ‘Leonardo’s robot’ with inner workings, is currently on display in Berlin
In the Hellenistic world automata were intended as toys, religious idols, or tools for demonstrating basic scientific principles, including those built by Hero. When his writings on hydraulics, pneumatics, and mechanics were translated into Latin in the 16th century, Hero’s readers initiated reconstruction of his machines, which included siphons, a fire engine, a water organ, the aeolipile, and a programmable cart.
However the history of the automaton goes back even further. In ancient China, a curious account of automata is found in the Lie Zi text, written in the 3rd century BC. Within it there is a description of a much earlier encounter between King Mu of Zhou (1023-957 BC) and a mechanical engineer known as Yan Shi, an ‘artificer’. The latter proudly presented the king with a life-size, human-shaped figure of his mechanical ‘handiwork’.
The Antikythera mechanism from 150–100 BC was designed to calculate the positions of astronomical objects.
The king stared at the figure in astonishment.
It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time. As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yen Shih [Yan Shi] executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was.
And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial…The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. Apparently the king was delighted.