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I for one welcome our new computer overlords…

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In the aftermath of Watson’s triumph over humanity’s best, your correspondent thought it wise to remind readers (and himself) that this is not the first time that we mortals have faced the onslaught of astounding new technology.

The good folks at Dark Roasted Blend have compiled a nifty through-the-ages recap of attempts to create “life” in new-fangled ways; from Leonardo’s “robot” and John Dee’s “flying beetle” to an “steam-powered hiker” and an “electric milk man” from Victorian England, there’s quite a selection in “Amazing Automatons: Ancient Robots & Victorian Androids.”

It’s all fascinating; but the sweet spot is surely the selection of creations from the 18th (and early 19th) centuries, when the then-highly-developed crafts of metal working and watchmaking were turned to automata.  Consider, for example…

Jacques Vaucason created numerous working figures, including a flute player, which actually played the instrument, in 1738, plus this duck from 1739. The gilded copper bird could sit, stand, splash around in water, quack and even give the impression of eating food and digesting it.

Pierre Jaquet-Doz created three automata, The Writer, The Draughtsman and The Musician, which are still considered scientific marvels today. The Draughtsman is capable of producing four distinct pictures, while the Writer dips his pen in the ink and can write as many as forty letters. The Musician’s fingers actually play the organ and the figure ends her performance with a bow.

More, at Dark Roasted Blend.

As we remind ourselves to re-read Kevin Kelly’s excellent What Technology Wants and then to retake the Turing Test, we might stage a dramatic memorial dramatist and scenic innovator James Morrison Steele (“Steele”) MacKaye; he died on this date in 1894.  He opened the Madison Square Theatre in 1879, where he created a huge elevator with two stages stacked one on top of the other so that elaborate furnishings could be changed quickly between scenes. MacKaye was the first to light a New York theatre– the Lyceum, which he founded in 1884– entirely by electricity. And he invented and installed overhead and indirect stage lighting, movable stage wagons, artificial ventilation, the disappearing orchestra pit, and folding seats. In all, MacKaye patented over a hundred inventions, mostly for the improvement of theatrical production and its experience.

Steele MacKaye

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