Historic Cybernetic Devices

Last update: 14 October 2017

This gallery displays historic documents and objects relating to the collecting and exhibit of automata and robots. The historical aspects of Artificial Intelligence development are also investigated. Themes revolve around Cybernetics, i.e., control and communication systems in living things and machines alike. This gallery is still under construction.

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1. The J. Norman Library of Cybernetics
United States of America

"Origins of cyberspace: A library on the history of computing, networking and telecommunications", assembled by J.M. Norman in 1996-2001.

A library on the history of computing, networking & telecommunications

Book dealer Jeremy M. Norman assembled a library of important works in the history of computing and telecommunications between 1996 and 2001. Assisted by bibliographer D.H. Hook and historian M.R. Williams, he published a collection catalogue, 'Origins of Cyberspace', now become the bibliographical reference on Cybernetics [1]. The first and shortest chapter lists works from the 17th and 18th centuries on calculating devices and mathematics. The second is devoted largely to published works of or relating to Charles Babbage and other inventors of difference engines. The third includes correspondence and publications relating to 19th-century telegraphy (e.g., Latimer Clark correspondence) and telefacsimile, as well as a few early 20th-century works on television. The fourth chapter describes a wide range of trade literature, published papers, exhibition catalogs, and books relating to computing before World War II, the era of adding and calculating machines, punched-card tabulating machines, and printed mathematical tables. The fifth and longest chapter is devoted to computing from World War II to about 1970 (e.g., artificial intelligence offprint signed by pioneer M.V. Wilkes [2]). The final chapter, which overlaps chronologically, describes newspaper clippings, publications, technical plans, and a variety of other materials associated with computer pioneer J. Presper Eckert. In addition to giving basic bibliographic information, for each title Hook and Norman describe the provenance, as far as it is known, and give a brief account of its historical importance. Included are e.g., a souvenir photograph of calculating prodigy Jacques Inaudi showing numbers flowing from his brain; the first published version of Karel Capek's play R. U. R. (1920), which introduced the term "robot"; and sheet music for the IBM theme song. 'Origins of Cyberspace' suggests how fragile much of the fundamental literature of computing and communications is. Rather than the bound books and manuscript letters on fine paper of the 17th and 18th centuries, one has carbon copies, mimeographs, and publications printed on highly acidic paper (Kidwell, 2003).

Figures: [1] Hooke & Norman, 2002 (presentation copy: The Tricottet Collection) | [2] Wilkes, 1953 (Orig. Cyberspace no. 1034)

PGP key by Phil Zimmermann, signed 2004

2. Artificial Intelligence 'brute force' in chess
From 1971 to 1997

Notes taken in 1988 by the patriarch of Soviet chess and multi-time world chess champion Mikhail Botvinnik about his PIONEER computer chess program.

Chess champions against AI: From "trifle eerie" in 1971 to the 1997 Armaggedon

The history of computer chess is rich and fascinating. It may have started in 1769 when Baron von Kempelen built a chess playing automaton, called The Turk, which could beat human players. It was however debunked, a talented midget manipulating The Turk's arm from a hidden trap. We had to wait the 1950s to get theoricians interested in computer chess and Claude Shannon, who founded the field of Information Theory, pioneered such work. Alan Turing derived a simple program of still weak chess playing. IBM computers started to beat low-ranking players in the late 1950s. Lisa Lane, U.S. Women's Chess Champion, played against an IBM System/360 Model 91 at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1971 and beat it [1]. The great Soviet grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-1995) [2] announced in his 1970 book 'Computers, Chess and Long-Range Planning' his belief that computers would soon play chess of an extremely high order using programs based on the same rules used subconscioulsy by grandmasters. Botvinnik worked on the matter, for example developing the PIONEER algorithm [3]. 'HAL's legacy, 2001's computer as dream and reality' [4] failed to anticipate that in 1997, same year the book was published, IBM's Deep Blue would beat the best human player in the world, Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue made the cover of 'Inside Chess' in the issues of 18 March 1996 (featuring Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue) and of 9 June 1997, featuring Dr. C.J. Tan and Deep Blue with the title "Armageddon! DEEP BLUE Wins 3.5-2.5". Nowadays, no need for brute force, AI can beat chess champions using deep reinforced learning, but this is another story.

Figures: [1] IBM Think magazine, 1971 (L. Lane) | [2] Botvinnik, 1984 (association copy: Z. Tsypkin) | [3] PIONEER algorithm manuscript (M. Botvinnik, 1988) | [4] Stork, ed., 1997 (review copy: A.G. Bromley)

earliest depiction of cyberspace? Tron The Grid storyboard, circa 1980, Artificial intelligence,

3. Relatively recent robot collections & exhibits
Great Britain & United States of America

Small newspaper archive about the Museum of Automata of York, a short-lived 1991-1996 robot museum showcasing the private collection of Jon and Andrea Robertson.

Robots in late 20th century museum exhibits & other private automata collections

Robots have always excited imagination, and as such, are recurring themes in museum exhibits (e.g., at the London Science Museum), from design to science [1], via industry and science-fiction. However, museums dedicated to robots are much rarer, and one, based on the personal automata collection of Jon and Andrea Robertson in York, remained opened only a few years in the 1990s [2]. Private collections focused on so-called automata, since robots (industrial ones) were likely too bulky to collect in the 20th century. It was a niche collecting theme, often associated with the more dominant clock collecting (see, e.g., the early Carl Marfels collection of antique watches). An other example is given with Ethel Holmes (1900-1993), who originally found interest in both clocks and dolls, which, put together, led her to collect, restore and build automata. She found clock collectors too commercial to her taste and doll collectors a "bunch of fussy, little old hens" (The Northwest International Chapter, 1997) [3]. Automata collectors often had to restore and repair those historical and fragile mechanisms, leading some to make their own creations, including E. Holmes as well as Frank Nelson (1930-) who started carving and creating automata in the early 1970’s and who exhibited in major galleries and art centres [4].

Figures: [1] Boilerhouse Project & Science Museum exhibits (A.G. Bromley) | [2] York Museum of Automata archive (E. Whitaker) | [3] E. Holmes collection catalogue (Unk.) | [4] Letters (F. Nelson - N. Hanson, 1982)

Forrest Ackerman science-fiction collection, robot movie props, Gort of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Maria of Metropolis

4. The earliest automata exhibits & collections
18th-19th centuries

The excellent review on automata history by Cooke, 'Automata old and new' (1893), here the copy dedicated to Bro. Charles Holme F.L.S., copy no. 1 of 255 (fig. 23).

The fate of the first known automata

For a history of automata from Antiquity to the late 19th century, Cooke (1893) certainly provides the best review, going from Hero's antique automata to The Turk of von Kempelen, Maillardet's caterpillars, Vaucanson's artifical duck and Le Droz's drawing automaton, as well as the contemporary creations by magicians Robert-Houdin and J. N. Maskelyne [1]. The story of the Jaquet-Droz automata (The Writer, Musician and Draughtsman) is a fascinating one. Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) made a tour of Europe with his automata, which fascinated kings and emperors alike. In late 19th century, long after his death and the one of his son Henri Louis (1752-1791), the History Society of Neuchatel tried to acquire the automata but it was Carl Marfels, collector of watches, who got them first. The automata are now housed at the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire of Neuchatel, Switzerland. Some consider the Jaquet-Droz devices to be the oldest examples of a computer. The Writer, a mechanical boy who writes with a quill pen upon paper with real ink, includes a programmable memory, a work predating that of Charles Babbage by decades. In contrast with the Jaquet-Droz automata which survive to this day, most the other famous automata from the 18th century have perished. To be continued...

Figures: [1] Cooke, 1893 (C. Holme) | [2] Perregaux, 1906 (C. Perrin)