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The First Robot Was a Steam-Powered Pigeon

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Daven Hiskey runs the wildly popular interesting fact website Today I Found Out. To subscribe to his "Daily Knowledge" newsletter, click here.

It's easy to assume that robots are a relatively recent invention—but in fact, the history of robotics stretches back well over 2000 years. The first, a steam-powered "pigeon," was created around 400 to 350 BCE by the ancient Greek mathematician Archytas.

Archytas constructed his robo-bird out of wood and used steam to power its movements. The bird, suspended from a pivot bar, was at one point able to fly about 200 meters before it ran out of steam—which makes Archytas' experiment not just the first known robot, but was also one of the first recorded instances of a scientist doing research on how birds fly.

The inventor was also a very accomplished philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, commander, statesman, and strategist. Archytas founded mathematical mechanics—what we now call mechanical engineering—and was an elected General for seven consecutive years. This violated the law at the time, but because Archytas never lost a single battle in his time as strategos, the people decided to continue to elect him as the ruler of their city-state anyway.

His mathematical works heavily influenced Plato and Euclid, among others. In geometry, he solved the problem of “doubling the cube,” as proposed by Hippocrates of Chios; he also made great advancements in musical theory, using mathematics to define intervals of pitch in the enharmonic scale in addition to those already known in the chromatic and diatonic scales. And he showed that pitch on a stringed instrument is related to vibrating air.

Archytas was known to be virtuous—so virtuous that his close friend Plato may have used him as his model for the “Philosopher King.” Archytas also seems to have strongly influenced Plato’s political philosophy as shown in “The Republic” and other works. For example, “How does a society obtain good rulers like Archytas, instead of bad ones like Dionysus II?”

Check out more interesting articles from Daven over at Today I Found Out and subscribe to his Daily Knowledge newsletter here.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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