Meet Talos, a giant made out of bronze who heats himself to red hot and clasps his enemies to his chestby Charlotte Higgins / December 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Greeks are well known for inventing a bunch of useful stuff: theatre, philosophy, history and democracy. Less well known is the fact that they invented robots.
Well, as with many claims about the Greeks’ invention of things, that’s not quite right; they didn’t have little classical R2D2s knocking around, wearing tunics and quoting Pindar’s odes. But what is true is that the Greeks came up with all kinds of intriguing stories about artificially created life-forms.
As ever, it begins in Homer—in the Iliad, when the goddess Thetis goes to the craftsman god Hephaestus to ask him to make impregnable armour for her son, the hero Achilles. In his workshop she sees his young female assistants, forged from gold: they can speak, they are strong, they are intelligent, says the poem.
Then there are the miraculous gold and silver dogs that stand guard outside the palace of Alcinous and Arete in the Odyssey, which seem to hover between sculpture and automated security device.
Various mythological sources tell of Talos, a giant made out of bronze who protects the coastline of Crete against invaders, also made by the craft-god Hephaestus, very much the Olympians’ robotics expert. In one version Talos throws stones at hostile ships; in another, more gruesome account, he heats himself to red hot, and clasps his enemies to his chest.
It is Medea—the clever, resourceful princess of Colchis—who finally sees off the creature, by figuring out his internal construction. He is powered by a vital fluid that lived in a membrane in his foot—she casts him into a magic sleep and then, like an ancient Greek version of Sarah Connor in the The Terminator, she cuts the membrane.
A new book called Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines and Ancient Dreams of Technology by Adrienne Mayor pulls lots of these stories together. But I don’t want you to think there is nothing to ancient robotics but myths. There were real moving models too: in 1st-century AD Egypt, the philosopher and mechanics expert Hero of Alexandria wrote about how to build automata, and construct things powered by wind and steam. (At the University of Glasgow the classics and engineering departments are actually working together on trying to actually build some of his designs.)