Throwback Thursday: A History of Robots

How did we get from Archytas’ mechanical bird propelled by steam to today’s more complex robots (like our beloved Susan, the line-following pig)?

Susan Line Following Pig

For starters, we’ve had a couple millennia to discover new technologies. Archytas’ aforementioned mechanical bird was made around 350 B.C.E. However, it’s not just a matter of changing technologies — the creativity and innovation has had to exist, and these ideas of automation and computing have had to grow, too. “If every tool, when ordered, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it… then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers or of slaves for the lords,” said Aristotle. Well over 2000 years ago, the ideas were in place to delegate tasks to non-humans, to the tools used for accomplishing those tasks.


From Da Vinci to Swiss clock makers, “automata” became more prevalent, though they often existed for the amusement of royalty and the wealthy. While some were functional (like the wristwatch), many were more whimsical creations designed to delight. Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s Analytical Engine provided one of the first viable designs for a mechanical computer. Lovelace’s algorithms paved the way for modern programming languages, an integral development in the history of the robot.


It was Czech writer Karel Capek who introduced the word “robot,” meaning “compulsory labor,” in one of his plays (in 1921). Depictions of robots in the nascent film industry inspired further innovation in both reality and science fiction. Alan Turing’s work with mathematics and the Turing Machine later spawned the Turing Test, which was designed to determine whether a machine had become able to think for itself. Around this time, Isaac Asimov began writing his stories about robots and seemingly inconceivable futuristic technology. His Three Laws of Robotics remain incredibly influential today.


In 1966, the world met Shakey, the first mobile robot able to recognize and react to its own actions. The same year, an AI was developed at MIT to function as a computer psychologist. Technology began changing at a mind-boggling rate; listing every development in robotics between 1966 and now would fill many books. Humanity went to space, engineers began creating tiny parts and computers that were accessible to the general public.


In 1979, Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute was established, providing a firm focus on robotic progress and development. In 1985, the first FPGA was developed! There are countless applications for FPGAs, but we do love Susan, who was first made in 2014. To make your very own line-following robot, check out the chipKIT Pro MX4 and Line-Following Motor Robot Kit.

Get started on your own part of making robotic history!
Get started on your own part of making robotic history!


With help from The Robotics Laboratory.

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About Amber Mear

I was the Digilent blog editor, and now I'm a contributor. I love learning about wearables and writing about social issues in STEM. Outside of work, I can be found watching Netflix with my cat, working on an art project, or trying to find new, delicious local foods.

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