THE REAL HISTORY OF ARTIFICIAL BEINGS
ing theatrical moments, clever artisans created remarkable machinery to animate stage performances.They developed what we would now call special effects, to give the illusion of life through motion—not that large-scale movement is an absolute prerequisite. Many living things, from a rooted plant to a barnacle fixed on a rock, never budge (although there is always some internal motion, such as the move- ment of nutrient-filled seawater through the barnacle). But a syn- thetic barnacle interests nobody. For us, life is motion, and animal vitality its most obvious and fascinating indicator. So it was for the Greeks, among them Plato, who once wrote “The soul is that which can move itself.”
To generate motion, the Greek artisans needed power; movement requires energy.The energy to flex the muscles that move our human bodies comes from what we eat. But what power source could ani- mate synthetic beings? Engines and energy sources have not been easy to come by in history (portable energy sources remain a problem; witness the current unsatisfactory state of battery power for laptop computers and electric automobiles).The first sources were domesti- cated beasts: oxen, mules, donkeys, and horses greatly extended hu- man muscle power. A horse, however, is not conveniently employed on stage. Instead, the Greeks used the natural processes of moving fluids and falling objects, along with simple machines, to create con- trolled motion.
Two Greek artificers in particular, Philon of Byzantium (the an- cient name forTurkey) and Heron of Alexandria, were especially pro- lific. Not much is known about Philon, born circa 280 BCE, but his treatise Mechanics includes a section called “On Automatic Theaters.” Heron (or Hero), born about 10 CE, perhaps in Alexandria, is better documented. He, too, understood mechanical principles and taught the subject at the Library in Alexandria.Three hundred years later, the mathematician Pappus of Alexandria described how Heron “thinking to imitate the movements of living things” used pressure from air, steam, or water, or strings and ropes.
Heron’s work The AutomatonTheater describes theatrical construc- tions that move by means of weights on strings wrapped around