In the not too distant future, when computers inevitably attain consciousness and enslave humanity, the lucky few who manage to escape their Matrix-style pseudo-reality will be left wondering—which asshole invented these things in the first place? And the accusatory finger of history will point back, past Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, past WWII and Alan Turing, all the way back to mid-19th century England, where it will land square on the nose of inventor Charles Babbage.
Babbage developed a digital computer a full century before computers were even a thing. And he did it without transistors, without circuits, without electricity—we’re talking rods and gears here people. Continue reading
13th century Friar Albertus Magnus is said to have spent upwards of three decades engineering a mechanical head that could move and speak. So terrifying was his creation that Thomas Aquinas smashed it on first sight.1
It would take another 500 years for Europeans to finally ease their attitude toward lifelike automata. In 1739, Jacques de Vaucanson captured the public imagination with his “Defecating Duck,” a bizarre clockwork apparatus that ate food pellets and shat them out the other side. In 1770, Wolfang von Kempelen debuted his mystifying chess-bot (known simply as “The Turk”). The machine would go on to best the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.2
Simulating human speech, however, proved a more elusive goal. While Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s robots could be programmed to write and draw pretty much anything, the most advanced mechanical speech synthesizers of the 18th century could utter nothing more than a few select words and phrases. It wasn’t until the early 1840s that an obscure German inventor by the name of Joseph Faber conjured up the very first bona-fide talking head. Continue reading