What is a Robot?

Stephen Bayley, James Woodhoysen
1984, Vol. 17, No. 1,


A robot is a mechanical hand and arm, controlled by a computer. It is nothing more than another type of machine. Its ancestry combines two different, but related, technologies: mechanisation and control. The history of the computer has been essential to both.

The history of mechanisation began with Oliver Evans' automated mill (1784), continued with Joseph Jacquard's loom (1801), and reached a high state of perfection at the end of the nineteenth century with Steward Babbitt's designs for a motorised crane which had a mechanical gripper to remove ingots from furnaces (1892). In the 1820s the technology of mechanisation cross-fertilised with the emerging science of information and control technology when the English mathematician, Charles Babbage, sometimes known as 'the father of the computer', developed an automatic calculator which he called his 'Difference Engine' (1823). Joseph Jacquard's loom proved to be the plateau from which all subsequent innovations in mechanisation and control took off. His invention was software, the novel idea that you could program a weaver's loom with punched cards that carried a coded 'model' of the patterns being woven. The Jacquard loom appeared in 1801, the last and most significant of a series of innovations in silk weaving which came out of Lyons from the early nineteenth century. It was so successful that by 1812 there were more than 11,000 in France alone. The punched card was a breakthrough in information technology: a Jacquard loom could carry as much as three megabytes of information on perforated paper. This technique of information storage became one of the fundamental components of the automatic memory calculators which gave birth to computers.

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