A History of Robotics: Yan Shi the Artificer

1023 BC

The Lie Zi text is an ancient philosophical volume of stories which is believed by Chinese and Western scholars to have been composed sometime in the 4th century BC. The text contains numerous stories, one of which featuring an astounding account of what may be an ancient engineering marvel, much older than the text itself. The text describes a sort of engineer, an 'artificer' named Yan Shi. Sometime around 1023 to 957 BC, Yan Shi presented a marvelous invention before the fifth king of the Chinese Zhou Dynasty, King Mu. Yen Shi had created a life-sized automaton which was able to move and preform several impressive functions. The automation could move in a like-like manner and could sing.
The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time... As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yen Shih executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously colored white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial... The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted. - (Liezi) [1]
This post is part of a series titled The History of Robotics. Each chapter is a year or era in robotics history. To see more check for posts labeled history or use the link bellow to view the next era.

1. The Shorter Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham and Colin A. Ronan, page 92.

Previous chapter: Da Vincis Mechanical Knight
Next chapter: Not published yet. 

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