Marvels and Miracles

A recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books contained an arresting title: On Medieval Robots: mechanisms, magic, nature, and art. It was a review by Kanish Tharoor of a new book by Elly A. Truitt by that name. Opening the article, Tharoor describes a scene in the book where Richard II—in 1377 a boy of ten—was to be crowned king of England. On the day before his coronation he was in a public pageant in London, supposedly the first of such things for a British monarch, and at one point a golden angel deposited a crown on his head. It was a mechanical contraption made by a goldsmith company to astonish and amuse the crowd, and perhaps to ingratiate the goldsmith to the royalty encircling the king-to-be. I was hooked and read the article.

In describing Truitt’s book, Tharoor used the provocative term mirabilia to encompass mechanical marvels of antiquity—rock-em-sock-em robotic armored knights, fluttering birds, clepsydrae, and hovering angels. Some are actual and others imagined. Reading the article was a bit jarring, as the work robot to me has a fairly specific meaning, and so seeing it juxtaposed with words such as medieval and magic had intrigued me.

Having written a good deal of computer code over the years for one purpose or another, disassembled and repaired current-day automata such as

Egyptian water-clock. Copy of a conical alabaster vase with columns of 12 holes. Astronomical signs decoration on the outer surface. Image courtesy of Getty Images DEA Picture Library,

Egyptian water-clock. Image displayed at, from Getty Images DEA Picture Library

washing machines and garden tractors, and seen enough movies such as Ex Machina, and A.I., I had some preconceptions about what a robot is and what it might do. The etymology is Russian; I believe, rabotatye means to work, and rabota means work. A robot is a worker, perhaps once a human laborer, but now a device. The sense may parallel the term computer, once meaning a person who sat a desk and did computations, e.g., for determining the range of an artillery shell on a battlefield, and now denoting a machine that does computation not merely with numbers but with logic and more, a la Turing.

Because the context was not a scientific journal, I was prepared for a more literary and historical view, and I was not disappointed. By the account in Medieval Robots, the European Middle Ages were times in which the inhabitants of western Eurasia understood things as either miracles (direct interventions by God into ordinary life), or marvels (the result of meddling by people, demons, or nature). In the western medieval mind, marvels from the East were associated with “others,” in such places such as the Arab world and Byzantium. The reviewer deplores the author’s presentation of eastern exoticism as a mere trope in the imagination of the West, and goes well afield of my rudimentary knowledge of the fifth- to fifteenth-century Europe to substantiate those criticism.

Kostas Kotsanas at the Technological Museum of Greece has some delightful illustrations and animations showing The Automatics of Phylon of Byzandium, and in particular the first robot ever designed. At the same site you can find The Rotating Chirping Bird and the Philospher’s Stone (turns water into wine), which date from the first century AD and are due to Heron of Alexandria.

In this 13th century automaton, pulling a feather on the peacock's tail started water flowing, and the waste raised a float, actuating first a soap dispenser and then a towel dispenser.

In this 13th century automaton, pulling a feather on the peacock’s tail started water flowing, and the waste raised a float, actuating first a soap dispenser and then a towel dispenser.

Yet from the reading I found myself fascinated with the idea that modern automata such as a copy of Siri running on an iPhone, the oracle Google, or a self-driving Tesla might be thought of as part of a tapestry of marvels (miracles?) that extend all the way from, say, the 10th century throne in the court of Constantine VII where a bronze tree housed squawking metal birds and mechanical roaring lions. That metaphorical woven fabric extends to our future through science fiction, our current-day chansons de gestes.[1]

From the point of view of the designer and maker, there is the problems of getting matter to move as desired, and the problem of building the logic animating that matter to move within a parameter space of gestures the particular automaton is supposed to inhabit. For the viewer or user, there are the aspects of “wow,” and then I-want, how-much, can-we-also. Neither of these basic aspects of enabling machinery has changed since AD eleventh century, or before.

The simplest machine possible is a water clock—it has, arguably, zero moving parts. In its simplest form, a jar with graduation marks on the side is filled with water, and a hole is unplugged at the base. As time passes, the water level pass marks for different hours of the day. Equally-spaced marks on a cylindrical clock won’t work, however, because the flow rate at the bottom slows down with less water in the container. So either the maker must mark the places with the right unequal spacing or else create a jar with a tapering cross-section so the water depth decreases at a constant rate. It’s a nice calculus problem to design the cross-sectional shape of a jar so that as the water level in it drops, it does so without speeding up or slowing down. Not surprisingly, it’s tapered, but surprisingly the cross section is not conical as the image above suggests.


The hydrogen fusion reactor that may upstage the tokamak

Wendelstein 7-X. The hydrogen fusion reactor that may upstage the tokamak

Presently, the most complex machines are such apparatuses as the large-hadron collider at CERN, which was the key to identifying the Higgs boson, the gravity-mediating particle announced in 2013 (watch Particle Fever for a splendid, human view of what people can imagine and do). While not as large, the complexity of Wendelstein 7-X, the device under construction in Germany that may be the first to generate sustained energy from hydrogen fusion, rivals that of the LHC.

Mirabilia proliferate in the modernity, though, so much that marvels and miracles are almost mundane—at least for folks in the first world. Some see deals with the devil in them, and maybe there is room for that worry. For certain, hip replacements, retina re-attachments, angioplasties, drone-deliveries, discoveries of Planet Nine and dark matter, and prospects for CRISPER babies, self-driving cars, and space tourism all come so fast, it inures us to the fabulous.

Photo by Giovanni Dall Orto, in "Antikythera Mechanism: Researcher find clues to ancient Greek riddle,

Photo by Giovanni Dall Orto, in “Antikythera Mechanism: Researcher find clues to ancient Greek riddle,”

For Christmas, daughter Rebecca gave me a book by Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens: a 2000-year-old Computer and the Century-long Search to Uncover its Secrets. The book provides and account of the discovery in 1901 of a shipwreck at the Greek island of Antikythera containing, among many other things, the remnants of a geared device whose function was a mystery. After a hundred years of dogged research by a determined sequence of investigators, the Antikythera mechanism seems pretty clearly to have predicted the positions of the planets in the sky over long periods of time as well as the times of lunar and solar eclipses. A striking feature of this story is that to penetrate the mystery of the device it took a century’s worth of invention of other devices that could read through the marine palimpsest of bronze encrusted with the remnants of sea creature life.

Marvel? Miracle? Both. “Marvacle?” Automata predate the Middle Ages, inhabit our world and psyches, and figure prominently in the future.


Elly Truitt’s blog on medieval automata is at

Kanish Tharoor, On Medieval Robots: mechanisms, magic, nature, and art, E. A. Truitt.

The Higgs Boson, CERN,

Daniel Clery, “The Bizarre reactor that might save nuclear fusion,” Science, Oct. 21, 2015.

[1] Le Chanson de Roland and Chanson d’Aymeri de Narbonne are songs of legendary great deeds originating in France in the 12th through 14th centuries.


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