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8 Amazing Automatons & the Minds Behind Them

Since the Greeks first told the myth of Pygmalion, who wished the statue he loved would come to life, it seems man has been trying to build a perfect replica of himself. Some would say we're getting closer to that possibility as computer technologies evolve and the first attempts at artificial intelligence are developed. However, the same thing was said centuries ago when clockmakers—using little more than gears, springs, cams, and levers—built complex machines, known as automatons, that could mimic the actions of humans to a startling degree. Here are just some of these early androids (and even one duck) that convinced much of the world that the robopocalypse was just around the corner.

The Three Automatons

Pierre Jaquet-Droz, his son Henri-Louis, and their business partner Jean-Frederic Leschot were Swiss watchmakers of exceptional talent who sold timepieces to some of the richest noblemen in Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s. But their reputation didn't always proceed them, so they created "The Three Automatons" between 1768 and 1774, and toured with them to entertain and impress prospective clients. After touring for a decade, the three automatons were eventually sold for 75'000 francs to the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire in Neuchatel, Switzerland, where they are still displayed and operated to this day.

The first is The Draughtsman, a young boy made from about 2000 parts that is capable of drawing pictures with the graphite pencil in his hand. His drawings, including a dog, a dancing nobleman and woman, Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly, and a portrait of King Louis XV, are directed by a series of cams—rotating metal disks that move levers at a predetermined time and direction. As if that wasn't impressive enough, his eyes follow his hand as it draws, he sometimes shifts in his chair, and he even occasionally picks up the pencil to blow graphite dust from the page.

The Musician is a female automaton, made using approximately 2500 parts, that can play five different songs on her custom-made organ. Although it would be easy to fake this effect by having a music box play under her while her hands simply hovered over the keys, the watchmakers have her actually play the piano, striking the keys with her independently moving fingers to produce the correct notes. While she plays, her head and eyes move to follow her hands, her chest expands as she "breathes," and she even gives a polite bow between each song.

With around 6000 parts, the Writer is not only the most complex of the trio, but it also perhaps the most astonishing in that he can be "programmed" to write a custom phrase up to 40 characters long, including appropriate spaces between words. However, the phrase he is currently set to write—"Les automates / Jaquet Droz / a neuchatel"—has not been altered in quite some time since it takes about eight hours to change. Like the Draughtsman, the Writer's eyes also follow along as he writes, and he even dips his quill into a nearby inkwell, shaking it off just before writing so as not to drip on the page.

Japan's Gadget Wizard

The Japanese fascination with robots goes back to the late 15th century when religious stage productions featuring small, clockwork actors entertained followers in elaborate outdoors festivals. Eventually, these karakuri (Japanese for "gadget") made their way into the home and became novelties, similar to our mechanical banks here in the West, only much more sophisticated.

Perhaps the most celebrated designer of these domestic karakuri was Hisashige Tanaka, also known as Karakuri Giemon ("The Gadget Wizard"). At the age of 20 in 1819, Tanaka was already designing and building karakuri like Mojikaki ningyo (The Calligraphy Doll), a young man that could write four Chinese characters with brush and ink. While there were other writing karakuri at the time, Tanaka's was the only one that moved with such fluid, life-like movements. Tanaka's best-known automaton, though, was Yumihiki-doji (The Archer Doll). This automaton was a young boy, dressed in an exquisite kimono, sitting on a platform with a bow in his hand, next to a quiver of arrows. Upon activation, he would calmly reach over and take the first arrow, nock it to the bowstring, pull back his bow, and fire, hitting a separate target some distance away. (Below, The Calligraphy Doll is shown on the left; the Archer Doll is on the right.)

While these gadgets were incredible, Tanaka earned his other nickname, The Thomas Edison of Japan, by introducing many new technologies to his countrymen. Among his most famous inventions is the first Japanese steam engine, built mainly using a Dutch reference manual, followed shortly by the first steam-powered warship. He also went on to found the first telegraph equipment company in Japan, which would later become the global corporation known as Toshiba.

The Digesting Duck

Plagued with digestive problems for much of his life, Jacques de Vaucanson used automatons to not only entertain, but also to help further the understanding of bodily functions. His fascination with mechanical men started at a young age when he built a group of androids that were able to serve dinner and clear the table as a special treat for a church dignitary visiting the monastery Vaucanson attended for school. While the dignitary was first impressed by the machines, he later called them profane and ordered Vaucanson's workshop be destroyed. Not surprisingly, Vaucanson soon left the order and struck out on his own to continue his research into the combination of man and machine.

The first automaton that really put him on the map was The Flute Player, built in 1738. Not only was the figure unusually tall—life-sized at 5'6"—but it could actually play its instrument. Nine bellows hooked to three separate pipes leading up into the chest, all joined together to make a central pipe that was connected at the mouth, actually "breathed" into the flute. The three sets of bellows even had specially calibrated weights attached to help produce the correct amount of air needed to create dramatic changes in volume. Furthermore, the lips could open and close, and move backwards and forwards, to apply different positions to the flute to provide even more personality to the tune. Finally, thin leather encased seven independently moving fingers that covered the correct holes to play the 12 songs it knew.

But Vaucanson's masterpiece, the perfect combination of his fascination with bodily functions and mechanical life, was The Digesting Duck. Built in 1739, the duck was an automaton perched atop a tall pedestal; it could splash in water, quack, open and close its wings, and, when a grain of barley was offered by a human hand, could stretch out its neck and take the seed. It would then swallow the barley and, a few moments later, expel what appeared to be the digested seed out its backside. While there are some who believe this was a trick—there was a second chamber in the duck's bowels that was filled with compressed grass clippings—others believed the duck truly did digest its meals.

Only a few years later, Vaucanson sold off his automatons to focus on his new career as the head of silk production for King Louis XV, a production he revolutionized thanks to his design for a mechanical loom. Sadly, this career change means the fate of his automatons have been lost to history. There are occasionally some Digesting Ducks that crop up with owners claiming them to be the genuine item, but upon examination they are found to be clever copies by contemporaries of Vaucanson. The original Duck is probably gone forever.

Here's a video of a copy of the Digesting Duck to give you some idea of how it might have worked:

"Monkbot"

In 1562, 17-year-old Don Carlos, the heir apparent to King Philip II's throne, fell down a flight of stairs and sustained a severe head injury. Bed-ridden for months, the young man suffered seizures and brain swelling and was even struck blind before finally falling into a coma. Philip II called in the best doctors from across the country, who offered up the best-known remedies of the day. Nothing worked, and it appeared the young prince would die.

Desperate, Philip called for a monk named Diego de Alcala (who would later be the namesake of San Diego, California). This was an unusual request, since Diego had been dead for about 100 years. However, it was believed that this holy man's corpse could perform healing miracles, so Philip decided it was worth a try. When they laid the monk's body in the bed next to Don Carlos, Philip asked God for a miracle and, in exchange, promised to perform a miracle of his own in God's honor. The next morning, Don Carlos woke up, reporting that a monk had come into the room and spoken to him in the night, assuring him that he would recover.

To honor his agreement with God, Philip commissioned a renowned clockmaker, Juanelo Turriano, to create a wind-up automaton in the form of Saint Diego. The 15-inches-tall wood and iron android in a cloth robe could walk, turn and bow its head, raise a cross in one hand, beat its chest with the other, while the mouth opened and closed as though saying "mea culpa."

It's arguable if this was, in fact, a miracle, rather than just good old human ingenuity. But what is a miracle is that the Monkbot has survived. It has been stored at the Smithsonian Institute since 1977, though it rarely makes public appearances anymore. Unfortunately, Don Carlos' fate was not as cheery. Despite waking up and seeming to make a full recovery, the head injury changed the already ill-tempered prince for the worst. Carlos became completely mentally unstable, to the point where his own father locked him away six years later; he died in solitary confinement.

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History
11 African American Inventors Who Changed the World
Dr. Shirley Jackson speaks at a conference in 2011.
Dr. Shirley Jackson speaks at a conference in 2011.
PopTech, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Can you imagine life without blood banks, personal computers, or touch-tone telephones? These innovative creations—and more—wouldn't exist today if it weren't for the brilliant minds of these 11 African American inventors.

1. THOMAS L. JENNINGS

A laundry operation circa 1925.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Thomas L. Jennings (1791-1859) was the first African American person to receive a patent in the U.S., paving the way for future inventors of color to gain exclusive rights to their inventions. Born in 1791, Jennings lived and worked in New York City as a tailor and dry cleaner. He invented an early method of dry cleaning called "dry scouring" and patented it in 1821—four years before Paris tailor Jean Baptiste Jolly refined his own chemical technique and established what many people claim was history’s first dry cleaning business.

People objected to an African American receiving a patent, but Jennings had a loophole: He was a free man. At the time, U.S. patent laws said that the "[slavemaster] is the owner of the fruits of the labor of the slave both manual and intellectual"—meaning slaves couldn't legally own their ideas or inventions, but nothing was stopping Jennings. Several decades later, Congress extended patent rights to all African American individuals, both slaves and freedmen.

Jennings used the money from his invention to free the rest of his family and donate to abolitionist causes.

2. MARK E. DEAN

An old IMB personal computer.
Steve Petrucelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you ever owned the original IBM personal computer, you can partially credit its existence to Mark E. Dean (born 1957). The computer scientist/engineer worked for IBM, where he led the team that designed the ISA bus—the hardware interface that allows multiple devices like printers, modems, and keyboards to be plugged into a computer. This innovation helped pave the way for the personal computer's use in office and business settings.

Dean also helped develop the first color computer monitor, and in 1999 he led the team of programmers that created the world's first gigahertz chip. Today, the computer scientist holds three of the company's original nine patents, and more than 20 overall.

Dean was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997. He's currently a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee.

3. MADAM C.J. WALKER

Madam C.J. Walker beauty products.
Craig Barritt, Getty Images for Essence

Madam C. J. Walker is often referred to as America’s first self-made female millionaire—a far cry from her roots as the daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers. The entrepreneur was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, and her early life was filled with hardships: By the age of 20, she was both an orphan and a widow.

Breedlove's fortunes changed after she moved to St. Louis, where her brothers worked as barbers. She suffered from hair loss, and experimented with various products, including hair care recipes developed by an African American businesswoman named Annie Malone.

Breedlove became a sales representative for Malone and relocated to Denver, where she also married her husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman. Soon after, she began selling her own hair-growing formula developed specifically for African American women.

Breedlove renamed herself "Madam C.J. Walker," heavily promoted her products, and established beauty schools, salons, and training facilities across America. She died a famous millionaire and is today considered to be one of the founders of the African American hair-care and cosmetics industry.

4. DR. SHIRLEY JACKSON

President Barack Obama presents Dr. Shirley Jackson with the National Medal of Science in May 2016.
President Barack Obama presents Dr. Shirley Jackson with the National Medal of Science in May 2016.
NICHOLAS KAMM, AFP/Getty Images

Dr. Shirley Jackson is a theoretical physicist who currently serves as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. While working at the former AT&T Bell Laboratories, she helped develop technologies that led to the invention of the portable fax, touch-tone telephone, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology enabling caller ID and call waiting. Jackson was also the first black woman to graduate with a Ph.D. from M.I.T., and the first to be named chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

5. CHARLES RICHARD DREW

Portrait of Charles Richard Drew
Associated Photographic Services, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // Courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Countless individuals owe their lives to Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950), the physician responsible for America’s first major blood banks. Drew attended McGill University College of Medicine in Montreal, where he specialized in surgery. During a post-graduate internship and residency, the young doctor studied transfusion medicine—and later, while studying at Columbia University on fellowship, he refined key methods of collecting, processing, and storing plasma.

In 1940, World War II was in full swing, and Drew was put in charge of a project called "Blood for Britain." He helped collect thousands of pints of plasma from New York hospitals, and shipped them overseas to treat European soldiers. Drew is also responsible for introducing the use of “bloodmobiles”—refrigerated trucks that transport blood.

The following year, Drew developed another blood bank for military personnel, under the American Red Cross—an effort that grew into the American Red Cross Blood Donor Service. Eventually, he resigned in protest after he learned that the military separated blood donations according to race.

Drew spent the remainder of his life working as a surgeon and a professor, and in 1943, he became the first African American doctor to be chosen as a member of the American Board of Surgery.

6. MARIE VAN BRITTAN BROWN

A CCTV camera outside a home.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

Homeowners can rest a little easier thanks to Marie Van Brittan Brown (1922-1999), a nurse and inventor who invented a precursor to the modern home TV security system. The crime rate was high in Brown's New York City neighborhood, and the local police didn't always respond to emergencies. To feel safer, Brown and her husband developed a way for a motorized camera to peer through a set of peepholes and project images onto a TV monitor. The device also included a two-way microphone to speak with a person outside, and an emergency alarm button to notify the police.

The Browns filed a patent for their closed circuit television security system in 1966, and it was approved on December 2, 1969.

7. GEORGE CARRUTHERS

President Barack Obama presents George Carruthers with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in February 2013.
President Barack Obama presents George Carruthers with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in February 2013.
Brendan Hoffman, Getty Images

George Carruthers (born in 1939) is an astrophysicist who spent much of his career working with the Space Science Division of the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. He’s most famous for creating the ultraviolet camera/spectograph, which NASA used when it launched Apollo 16 in 1972. It helped prove that molecular hydrogen existed in interstellar space, and in 1974 space scientists used a new model version of the camera to observe Halley’s Comet and other celestial phenomena on the U.S.’s first space station, Skylab.

Carruthers was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2003.

8. DR. PATRICIA BATH

Dr. Patricia Bath of Laserphaco in 2012.
Jemal Countess, Getty Images

Dr. Patricia Bath (born 1942) revolutionized the field of ophthalmology when she invented a device that refined laser cataract surgery, called the Laserphaco Probe. She patented the invention in 1988, and today she’s recognized as the first African American woman doctor to receive a medical patent.

Bath is a trailblazer in other areas, too: She was the first African American to finish a residency in ophthalmology; the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the U.S.; and she co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. If that weren't enough, Bath's research on health disparities between African American patients and other patients gave birth to a new discipline, "community ophthalmology," in which volunteer eye workers offer primary care and treatment to underserved populations.

9. JAN ERNST MATZELIGER

Postage stamp featuring Jan Ernst Matzeliger
John Flannery, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The average 19th-century person couldn't afford shoes. This changed thanks to Jan Ernst Matzeliger, an immigrant from Dutch Guiana (today called Surinam) who worked as an apprentice in a Massachusetts shoe factory. Matzeliger invented an automated shoemaking machine that attached a shoe’s upper part to its sole. Once it was refined, the device could make 700 pairs of shoes each day—a far cry from the 50 per day that the average worker once sewed by hand. Matzeliger's creation led to lower shoe prices, making them finally within financial reach for the average person.

10. ALEXANDER MILES

Portrait of Alexander Miles
Duluth Public Library archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not too much is known about Alexander Miles’s life (1830s–1918), but we do know that the inventor was living in Duluth, Minnesota, when he designed an important safety feature for elevators: their automatic doors. During the 19th century, passengers had to manually open—and close—doors to both the elevator and its shaft. If a rider forgot to close the shaft door, other people risked accidentally falling down the long, vertical hole. Miles’s design—which he patented in 1867—allowed both of these doors to close at once, preventing unfortunate accidents in the making. Today's elevators still employ a similar technology.

11. GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER

Portrait of George Washington Carver
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

George Washington Carver (1860s-1943) was born into slavery in Missouri. The Civil War ended when he was a boy, allowing the young man the chance to receive an education. Higher education opportunities for African Americans were limited at the time, but Carver eventually received his undergraduate and master's degrees in botany at Iowa State Agricultural College.

After graduation, Carver was hired by Booker T. Washington to run the Tuskegee Institute’s agricultural department, in southeastern Alabama. He helped poor agrarians by teaching them about fertilization and crop rotation—and since the region's primary crop was cotton, which drains nutrients from the soil, the scientist conducted studies to determine which crops naturally thrived in the region. Legumes and sweet potatoes enriched the fields, but there wasn't much of a demand for either. So Carver used the humble peanut to create more than 300 products, ranging from laundry soaps to plastics and diesel fuel. By 1940 it was the South's second-largest cash crop.

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Food
A Juicy History of Steak-Umm
Steak-umm
Steak-umm

Eugene Gagliardi, patriarch of the Gagliardi meatpacking business, raised the 22-ounce frozen log of beef byproducts that would shortly become known as Steak-umm and sent it careening into his son’s ankle.

“Nobody is ever going to buy this sh*t!” he screamed, storming off.

"My dad was not supportive," Gene Gagliardi, whose Achilles tendon had been targeted, tells Mental Floss. "I decided to work on it at night."

The elder Gagliardi was not a man given to flights of fancy in the meat business, and now was not the time to try his patience with an experiment. It was the mid-1960s and his company was floundering, having lost some valuable accounts in recent months. What the younger Gagliardi had perceived to be a possible solution was, to his father, a joke. To Gene, it seemed like nothing could be done to please his father—not even his idea to revolutionize the frozen beef business by collecting scraps of unwanted meat and pressing it into a loaf.

The younger Gagliardi would eventually sell Steak-umm to Heinz for $20 million. He was one of the few who saw the potential for thinly-sliced steaks and refused to abandon the idea, even as his ankle throbbed.


Steak-umm Meats via YouTube

When Gagliardi was 6 years old, his father seated him on a pear crate, put a knife in his hand, and told him to start cutting. Chopping beef and poultry was the family business, and the Gagliardi clan—Eugene and his three sons, with Gene the middle child—were prominent meat merchants in the West Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania. There was no time to waste.

In the 1950s, the Gagliardis found success selling portion-controlled meat cuts long before commercial food manufacturers started peddling smaller serving sizes for dieters. They also curated premium slabs of beef and sold them to high-end clientele. When the fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s began to proliferate, the Gagliardis earned their business, too.

But by the 1960s, the laundry list of accounts had begun to dry up. Cheaper suppliers were becoming more abundant, and the personalized touch of Gagliardi Brothers was becoming less of a buying influence. With business slowing down, Gene Gagliardi would stay up late at night and think about how to bring his family’s finances back from the brink. That way, maybe his father would allow him to pursue his dream of being a park ranger in Montana.

One of those nights, the then-30-year-old identified a problem with the well-known Philly-style cheesesteaks. The chewy steak cuts were tough to handle for both children and senior citizens, and posed a bit of a choking risk across the board. Gagliardi thought a tender source of the beef would broaden the appeal of the cheesesteak and open it up to a larger market.

"It was tough cow meat back then," he says. "You had to be real careful about feeding it to kids because the meat would drag out of the sandwich. I thought, well, if you can homogenize milk, you should be able to homogenize meat."

Gagliardi thought he could soften up the meat by running it repeatedly through a meat grinder. "I did that about five times, extracting the protein out, and it became a solid mass. I couldn't slice it, so I froze it and then put it back in the fridge for four days to temperate it, then sliced it." Gagliardi had created a tender meat product that could be sold frozen and virtually eliminated the choking hazards of conventional Philly cheesesteaks.

(In a 2012 federal court ruling, a judge would articulate exactly what Gagliardi had done. "[The Steak-umm was] from chopped and formed emulsified meat product that is comprised of beef trimmings left over after an animal is slaughtered and all of the primary cuts, such as tenderloin, filet, and rib eye, are removed,” Judge Lawrence Stengel wrote. “The emulsified meat is pressed into a loaf and sliced, frozen, and packaged.")

Because the beef was so flat, it took only 30 seconds to cook each side. Gagliardi tasted it, found it delicious, and thought he’d solved his family’s problems.

His father was not a fan. After berating his son for even contemplating the idea, he begrudgingly allowed him to peddle it to supermarkets. Gagliardi offered to sell it below cost so stores would carry it. Marketed under the Gagliardi's frozen brand of Table Treats, the frozen meat slices debuted in 1969.

"We actually sold it to school lunch programs," Gagliardi says. "Kids ate it, loved it, then went home and asked for it."

Its eye-raising origins aside, shoppers seemed to embrace the product. It was quick to make—some college students even cooked the slices by wrapping them in foil and ironing them—tasty, and easy to chew. The company even distributed it with frozen rolls for a complete Philly cheesesteak experience. By 1975, Gagliardi was distributing them under the name Steak-umm after a friend suggested it during a quail hunting expedition. By 1980, he says, it was the best-selling frozen meat product in retailer freezers: "Competitors would try to pay off inspectors to find out how we did it."

While the Steak-umm name was trademarked, Gagliardi was unsuccessful in obtaining a patent for the process used to make them. He blamed confusion in filing the papers. "My brother was Mr. Thrifty and went to an attorney who had never filed for a patent before," he says.

Whatever the case, Steak-umm knock-offs became pervasive. When Heinz approached the brothers in 1980 with an offer of $20 million for the rights, it was an easy decision.

The marketing muscle of Heinz further endeared the Steak-umm brand to consumers. Heinz (via their Ore-Ida division) owned Steak-umm through 1994 before selling it back to Gagliardi and his newest venture, Designer Foods. All along, the butcher had been treating his kitchen like a lab, finding new ways to trim meats to maximize profitability for distributors. He wound up patenting several novel methods, including what would become KFC’s Popcorn Chicken in 1992.

Steak-umm changed hands once more in 2006, when Quaker Maid Meats purchased the company. In 2008, they entered into lengthy litigation with Steak ‘Em Up, a Philadelphia-based eatery that Quaker alleged was guilty of consumer confusion. A 2012 federal ruling was in favor of the defendant, who serves authentic Philly cheesesteaks and “thought it was a joke” that anyone could confuse them for the frozen alternative.

At 86, Gagliardi still toils at the butcher’s block, working on food innovation for his company, Creativators. Despite his numerous contributions to food service, he still feels slighted by his father, who passed away in 1991 and apparently never acknowledged his son’s success.

"I never got a compliment," he says.

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