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Watches: charting the history of clockmakers and robotics

Many of the earliest attempts at automated humans came from the hands of watchmakers

Published: 26 May 2023

The internet loves a robot video. They walk, talk – some even dance and do a spot of parkour. Very entertaining. But you can’t help feeling that by this stage we’d be a bit further down the line. Take the car as an example: in 1886, you could outrun Carl Benz’s three-wheeler on foot; a century later we had the Porsche 959.

If robots had improved at this pace, they’d be moving among us undetected by now because we have been trying to make automated humans for literally thousands of years – with many of the early attempts by clock and watchmakers. In the 3rd century BC, a Greek inventor called Tesibius made a water clock that was the most accurate way of measuring time until the advent of the pendulum clock in the 17th century. He also created automata for fun, like a statue that could stand up and sit down.

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A 12th-century Mesopotamian scholar called Ismail al-Jazari made more advances in clockmaking and proto-robotics, even combining both with a water clock complete with little figures playing drums and cymbals. He also made a robot waitress that could pour drinks. If that is not enough clever stuff for one person, he is also credited with inventing the camshaft, which went on to prove fairly useful.

The relation between clocks and mechanical figures continued into the modern era. In the 18th century a Swiss watchmaker called Pierre Jaquet-Droz created automata as toys for the well-heeled. His creations, still found in museums today, include The Writer, a small boy at a desk programmed to write up to 40 letters with an ink pen. The mechanism worked along the same principles as a clock, with ratchets, gear wheels and mainsprings, but its programmable nature makes this slightly spooky robot a forerunner to the computer.

The future of robots no longer lies with watchmakers, of course. It is now the business of Silicon Valley, not the Swiss mountains. Sadly the robots on YouTube look like they are stuck in the expensive prototype stage for now. So dreams of a lifelike droid in every home looks like staying in the realm of science fiction for some years to come. In the meantime, thankfully, there are plenty of robot-themed watches to choose from, available to suit all budgets.

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