Ecclesiastical Origins of Robotics

According to a recent post by Michael Schulson on religiondispatches.org, robotics had an ecclesiastical patron:

For centuries [starting in the Late Middle Ages], the Catholic Church was the main patron of automata–elaborate mechanisms, often driven by springs, that were the precursor to present-day robots.  “Not only did automata appear first and most commonly in churches and cathedrals, the idea as well as the technology of human-machinery was indigenously Catholic,” writes Stanford’s Jessica Riskin in her marvelous essay, “Machines in the Garden.”

Automata, according to Riskin, “peopled the landscape of late medieval and early modern Europe,” which was “positively humming with mechanical vitality.”  Church-commissioned clockmakers built mechanical angels and demons to decorate altars; “automaton Christs–muttering, grimacing, blinking on the cross–were especially popular.”  Some churches even had automatic heretics.  A mechanical moor’s head once hung in the cathedral in Barcelona, the expression on its face changing with the intensity of the organ music.

Automata entertained churchgoers.  They also helped  philosophers and theologians sharpen their thinking about the relationship between physical motion and an immaterial soul.  When Leibniz and Descartes mediated on the nature of life, Riskin explained to me, “these were the machines they looked at.”

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