Sometime in the first century, between 10 and 70 AD, Greek physicist, mathematician, and engineer Heron of Alexander (aka “Hero”) wrote several texts describing, in irritating vagueness, machines useful for heavy lifting, automated gadgets, war machines, and more than eighty other types of mechanical apparatuses including what may have been the world’s first steam engine.
Among his creations were automatic temple doors, an odometer for your chariot, the world’s first vending machine, and a seemingly bottomless wine glass with a reservoir designed to supply you with any necessary top-offs. If that still isn’t enough, he also invented a robot that could fill a wineglass placed in its hand.
Of course, he didn’t call it a robot, or whatever the Greek equivalent of robot would be. That term wasn’t officially coined as a word for an automaton until 1920 when Czech playwright Karel Čapek used it in his play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play is about a factory that makes robots which inevitably take over the world and wipe out all human life. And that’s exactly what fictional robots have been doing ever since.
But the earliest forms of robots were simply helpful curiosities that delighted and amazed and made Hero’s mama awfully proud. Now, I realize I’m being a little presumptuous here. I know nothing about Hero’s mama. She may not have been impressed at all, or she may have even been the brains behind Hero’s success. It’s possible that she was the Ada Lovelace of Ancient Greece. History doesn’t always remember the mamas (or women in general) as much as it should.
What I do know, is that I am a proud mama of a robot-maker. For two years now, my sixteen-year-old has been part of a robotics team through our school district. It’s a pretty well-established team with lots of community support and great volunteer mentors, both teachers of physics and engineering, and professional engineers and mechanics from the area.
I’m grateful for that because in this particular bit of my son’s wide-ranging interests, I don’t have much to offer. He doesn’t get it from me, but he definitely has a natural inclination toward design. One time when he was three years old, he heard us talking about a winter storm that was supposed to be blowing in and so he went to his room and changed the design of a bug-like structure he’d made with some of his building toys to “make it more stable” in the upcoming harsh conditions. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, then, that he would jump at a chance to design robots.
Like everything else, the robotics team faced a strange year last year in the midst of the pandemic. All competitions were cancelled before they got a chance to show off their hard work and the design challenge was rolled over into this year. Then this year’s official competitions were cancelled, too.
Fortunately, a smaller school district in a tiny town in Southern Missouri put together an unofficial tournament in a fairly wide-open space. Teams had to limit the number of student representatives they could take and numbers of spectators were pretty tightly controlled, but it was something.
And this past weekend, I got to watch a surprisingly exciting championship in which my son’s team came out on top. To the best of my knowledge their little robot can’t pour a glass of wine, but it can swerve, spin a turntable, pick up balls to then accurately shoot at a target, and do a pretty impressive pullup.
I’m not exactly sure how these tasks are going to help it take over the world, but I probably know as much about science fiction as I don’t know about robots and I am certain it will figure it out. When it does, I’m going to be an awfully proud mama.