The Roots of Automation Before Mechatronics

Article (PDF Available)inIEEE Industrial Electronics Magazine 4(2):42 - 43 · July 2010with 308 Reads
DOI: 10.1109/MIE.2010.936772 · Source: IEEE Xplore
Cite this publication
The inventions of Kenotron (the thermionic valve diode, 1904) by John A. Fleming and Audion (the thermionic valve triode, 1906) by Lee De Forest started the revolution of electronics, that merged with mechanics, automation, and computer science around the mid-1950, generating present-day industrial robots and eventually mechatronics. A brief look at the history of automation before mechatronics came is given in this paper.
by Massimo Guarnieri
The Roots of Automation Before Mechatronics
Men have caressed many
dreams during their history,
which remained unrealizable
for thousand of years. Many are still
unrealized, but others have come true,
thanks to technology.
From the times of the mythologi-
cal Icarus’ attempt, the dream of a
human flying challenged many tal-
ented engineers, from Abbas Ibn Fir-
nas (852) to Leonardo da Vinci (circa
1505). The long-lasting challenge was
finally won at the maturity of the
industrial era with Ferdinand von
Zeppelin (1900) and Wilburn and
Orville Wright (1903).
The dream of mechanically re-
producing the decision and action
capability of a living being has
intrigued men in a similar way.
Although not fully credible accounts
suggest earlier achievements in
ancient China and elsewhere, as far
as we know, Hellenistic engineers
were the first to make steps in the
direction of automation. The amalga-
mation of civilizations that followed
the conquest of Asia by Alexander in
the second half of the fourth-century
BC flowered into a new creative cul-
ture based on the Greek, Asiatic, and
Egyptian scientific and technical mas-
teries. The capital of the new Hellenis-
tic culture was Alexandria, where one
of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy I
Soter, founded the Museum (Hall of
the Muses, i.e., of Arts) and the Library,
with hundred of thousands of books,
the largest in the world for centuries.
Scholars lived and worked there, pro-
ducing exceptional achievements,
particularly in technical fields. Ctesi-
bius (285–222 BC) was a prominent
engineer and likely the first head of
the museum. He wrote the first book
on pneumatics and
devised a number of
machines based on
pneumatic actions, in-
cluding an improved
water clock that was
equipped with the first
feedback control sys-
tem, aimed at tackling
the problem of the
diminishing flow rate.
It was provided with an
indicator system [gears
and a dial indicator to automatically
adjust indication according to the
seasonal duration of hours through-
out the year (Figure 1)]. Ctesibius
invented the hydroacoustic autom-
ata, such as hydraulic pipe organ.
Hero (circa 10–70
AD) was the last great
Alexandrian polymath
who, among many other
devices, built theater
automata, able to amaz-
ingly move under the
hidden effects of water
or steam. One of his
engines used the heat of
a fire to displace water
from a sealed vessel, so
producing a mechanical
action. The effect was that temple
doors automatically opened when a
altar fire was started. Hero is also
credited with the invention of aeoli-
pile, the very first steam-powered
machine. Unfortunately, the achieve-
ments of the Alexandrian technicians
in exploiting pressure, water, and
steam to obtain automation and
mechanical power went lost with the
dispersion of the Hellenistic culture in
the early Christian era and one-and-a-
half millennium was needed to redis-
cover them.
Starting in the middle of the eighth
century, Islamic technicians built
wind-powered automata for the Abba-
sid Caliphs of Baghdad. Among many
outstanding scholars, the most prom-
inent engineer was Al-Jazari who built
complex programmable humanoid
automata described in the Book of
Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical
Devices in 1206. They included four
musicians on a boat, who were able
to perform different facial and body
DigitalObject Identifier 10.1109/MIE.2010.936772
FIGURE 1 Ctesibius’ water clock with first
feedback system, from a Renaissance
printed edition. (Courtesy of
actions during each musical selec-
tion. His elephant clock featured an
automatic humanoid mahout striking a
cymbal after every hour or half an hour
and other animal automata performing
other actions, decades before the very
first rudimental mechanical clocks
appeared in Europe.
The visionary talent of Leonardo
da Vinci conceived an automaton,
now known as the Leonardo’s robot,
around 1495. It is a warrior in medie-
val armor intended not for fight but
for amusement. We do not know
whether he really built it or whether it
remained as a drawing in his sketch-
book. However, it has been recently
built based on those original draw-
ings, proving to be fully functional, as
Leonardo had planned (Figure 2).
Da Vinci did not stop there and
went further on the way of automa-
tion, devising machines aimed at
improving quality and speeding-up
manufacturing at the same time.
Some of them anticipated of centu-
ries innovations of the industrial
revolution: iron rolling machines, a
one-man operated automatic loom, a
double flap spinning machine with
two spindles at a time, a threader,
lens grinders, and a rope machine,
just to name a few.
In the dawn of the industrial revo-
lution, the construction of automata
strongly benefited from extracontinental
explorations. Open ocean
navigations of the 17th
and 18th centuries rose a
new technical problem,
the measurement of lon-
gitude. The successful
way to its solution called
for the constructions of
new clocks, the maritime
chronometers, by techni-
cians like John Harrison
(four model from 1736
to 1761) and Pierre Le
Roy (1766), which greatly
advanced accurate man-
ufacturing, starting preci-
sion mechanics.
Leisure automata be-
came a fad in Europe at
that time. Jacques de
Vaucanson was a promi-
nent master of that art. He is credited
with creating the world’s first true
robots. The first was the
flute player (1737), a life-
size figure of a shepherd
that played 12 different
songs, but his masterpiece
was the digesting duck
(1739), with more than 400
moving parts, that could
flap its wings, drink water,
digest grain, and defecate
(Figure 3).
A few decades later, Pierre Jaquet
Dorz and his son were able to build
programmable humanoid automata
made of more than 2,000 pieces, which
could play music, write, and draw
(circa 1774).
With the break of industrial revolu-
tion, automation began to be applied
to production processes. The first
programmable looms were built by
Basile Bouchon in 1725, Jean-Baptiste
Falcon in 1728, and Vaucanson in
1745 and gained wide popularity with
the model by Joseph-Marie Jacquard
in 1804, whose punch cards eventu-
ally inspired the data input device for
Charles Babbage’s revolutionary dif-
ference (1822) and analytical (1834)
engines. Mechanical self-regulation
was introduced in the steam engine
by James Watt with the centrifugal
governor in 1788, although similar
devices were already in use in Dutch
wind mills. In fact, the very first mod-
ern era feedback system was a mer-
cury thermal regulator for chicken
incubators devised by Cornelis Dreb-
bel circa 1620. Systematic theoretical
studies on feedback regulation were
started much later in 1840 by George
Biddell Airy who also opposed Bab-
bage’s engines, and in 1867 by James
Clerk Maxwell. A few deca-
des later, the inventions
of Kenotron (the thermi-
onic valve diode, 1904)
by John A. Fleming and
Audion (the thermionic
valve triode, 1906) by Lee
De Forest started the revo-
lution of electronics, that
merged with mechanics,
automation, and computer
science around the mid-1950, generat-
ing present-day industrial robots and
eventually mechatronics.
Massimo Guarnieri graduated with
honors in electrical engineering at
Padua in 1979, received the master’s
degree in plasma engineering in 1982,
and the Ph.D. degree in electrical sci-
ence in 1987. In 1982, he joined the
CNR and in 1983 the University of
Padua, where he has been a full profes-
sor of electrical engineering since 2000.
Initially, he centered his work on the
analysis and design of large electro-
magnetic devices for fusion energy
research experiments. He later moved
his interests to innovative computa-
tional electromagnetism, coupled prob-
lems, and fuel cells systems. He is also
interested in the history of technology
and science.
FIGURE 2 Leonardo da Vinci’s robot reconstructed in
Berlin. (Courtesy of Erik Mo
FIGURE 3 Jacques de Vaucanson’s digest-
ing duck. (Courtesy of
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