Even though the Robot iconography is relatively modern, the idea of robots dates back to ancient times. This is the whole story of a sophisticated evolution.
Once there was the Golem
In Jewish traditions the Golem is often mentioned, a sort of giant made of inanimate matter (clay in general) which is brought to life after pronouncing some verses of the Talmud, with the aim of defending a community or seeking revenge. The word golem means “mad” or “incomplete”. The story of the Rabi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel is pretty famous. Apparently in the second half of the 500s in Prague he created a golem (thanks to his deep knowledge of the magic of the Kabbalah) to defend the Jews of the ghetto against the anti-Semitic attacks of the Catholics and Protestants.
The Arabian Robot (the first one ever)
Among ancient Greeks and Chinese, many scientists and philosophers imagined (and even put into practice sometimes) the creation of robots for the most diverse uses, even though the first programmable robot was probably made by an Arab scientist of the 13th century, Al-Jazari who created a robot able to play and change music sheets according to the audience’s taste, and used him during parties and official ceremonies.
“Robota” aka “Slave”
Between the 15th and 19th centuries in many countries (especially in royal courts and aristocratic families) many robots were made to entertain or surprise the guests but the real robotic science emerged only at the beginning of the 20th century, when the robots were designed in a completely different way. The word robot is used for the first time in 1920 by the Czech writer Karel Čapek in his novel ‘R.U.R.’ (‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’, used also to produce a film the following year). The word comes from the Czech word “robota”, which means “indefatigable worker” or also “slave”.
Connections with Shelley’s Creature
The mechanical creations of Čapek are much more similar to the creature of Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein than the entertaining robots of the previous centuries. The myth of the human creation, of the fulfilment of the divine ability to create a new life fills the literature, of course. And scientific research follows the science-fiction findings of the writers, following their ideas in practice. In 1939/1940 the first humanoid robot is shown in public during the universal exhibits of New York and Stockholm and eight years later (1948) the American neurophysiologist William G. Walter claimed he created the first robot with “biological behaviours”, able to act and behave for its own survival and well-being.
And they come Modern Robots
In realty, robotics, in the past 30/40 years did not make many steps forward, actually less than what people believed in the 20th century. The problems resulting from the programming of operating machines were often impossible to overcome even for modern computer technology, and even though some countries, such as Japan, were years ahead in the creation of “domestic robots” (dogs, cats, maids and even robots with sexy female features used for entertainment-sexual purposes…), these products are far from the terrifying androids invented by Philip K. Dick or the “good ones” by Isaac Asimov and are more similar to those created in the 15th and 17th centuries by European and Chinese inventors to entertain aristocrats. However, the development of nanotechnologies and of the so called “quantum computers” or “neural electronic networks” (computerized systems where the transmission of information takes place through the synapses of living cells) opens unknown perspectives even for robotics. Which is a field where everything is still possible.