Here we present selected parts of the very interesting paper titled “The Homeric Automata and Their Implementation“, by D. Kalligeropoulos and S. Vasileiadou, taken from the impressive collective work “Science and Technology in Homeric Epics“, edited by S.A. Paipetis (Springer, 2008).
“The word ‘automata’ is a Homeric word. It appears frequently in the Iliad and the Odyssey, in order to describe machines moving on their own by means of internal energy, like live beings. We cannot be sure whether era such automobile machines really existed in the Homeric or it was poetic imagination daring to foresee them, to express the need for their existence and to ascribe their construction to the great Olympian craftsman, Hephaestus. “. . . self-bidden (Homer uses the word αυτόματα/automatically, i.e. by themselves) groaned upon their hinges the gates of heaven which the Hours had in their keeping . . . ”, writes the poet in the Iliad, Book V, 749) .
It was Hera who ordered the gates to open automatically. Imagination? Probably. Nevertheless, it remains an advanced formulation of the term ‘automatically’ and of the technological vision: it could be possible such gates to be realized. A vision that soon found its implementation.
The Automata in the Iliad
In Book XVIII of the Iliad, which is called Oplopoiea (= weapon manufacture), Hephaestus was working in his bronze mansion, where Thetis:
found him sweating with toil as he moved to and fro about his bellows in eager haste; for he was fashioning tripods, twenty in all, to stand around the wall of his well-built hall, and golden wheels had he set beneath the base of each that of themselves they might enter the gathering of the gods [αυτόματα by Homer] at his wish and again return to his house, a wonder to behold. (Book XVIII, 372–377)
Here Homer does not restrict himself in the formulation:
– It could be possible automatic tripods to exist.
He goes further:
– It could be possible automatic tripods to be constructed by a competent craftsman as Hephaestus. And they could be useful in practice. They could be in the service of the Olympian gods. A vision soon implemented as well.
Homer extends his daring thought even further. The one who is able to construct automatic machines, he is also able to create something similar for his workroom.
The new vision: The automata could be part of a production process. In other words, automatic workrooms could be created.
He [Hephaestus]went unto his bellows, and he turned these toward the fire and bade them work. And the bellows, twenty in all, blew upon the melting-vats, sending forth a ready blast of every force, now to further him as he laboured hard, and again in whatsoever way Hephaestus might wish and his work go on. (Book XVIII, 468–473)
This description refers to a real automatic workroom, where Hephaestus commands
twenty bellows to work automatically so that metals would melt. Moreover, these bellows were adaptive; he only needed to instruct them to start and they started operating automatically, faster or slower, as the work required.
An ingenious conception: Automatic production was possible, by which a single person would give the initial command, and the machines would to operate on their own, regulating their operation according to the conditions and the needs of work.
The technical vision is completed when the poetic imagination* arrives at its last stage: could not it be possible for the god-technologist to construct manlike selfmoving machines, possessing skills and knowledge?
He [Hephaestus] spoke, and from the anvil rose, a huge, panting bulk, halting the while, but beneath him his slender legs moved nimbly . . . but there moved swiftly to support their lord handmaidens wrought of gold in the semblance of living maids. In them is understanding in their hearts, and in them speech and strength, and they know cunning handiwork by gift of the immortal gods. (Book XVIII, 410–420)
Here they are: two mythical robots, two self-moving manlike machines, having sense, speech and strength. Innovative technological visions: The strength, i.e. the feature that transforms low-power commands into powerful mechanical movements, the speech, i.e. the construction of machines producing sounds to communicate, and the sense, i.e. the particular inner structure that results in skillful, learning machines.
These references are of particular interest since they introduce new concepts in technology and express technological intentions even though their realization is ascribed to gods.
The Automata in the Odyssey
In the Odyssey, the “peaceful” Homeric epic, the manufacture of automata is ascribed not only to gods*, but also to men. The poet asserts that there are people – the Phaeacians, of the mythical country of Scheria, capable of manufacturing intelligent ships. Their king, Alcinous, tells Odysseus:
And tell me your country, your people, and your city, that our ships may convey you thither, discerning the course by their wits. For the Phaeacians have no pilots, nor steering-oars such as other ships have, but their ships of themselves understand the thoughts and minds of men, and they know the cities and rich fields of all peoples, and most swiftly do they cross over the gulf of the sea, hidden in mist and cloud, nor ever have they fear of harm or ruin. (Book VIII, 555–563)
A new technological vision appears here: The constructed thought, the artificial intelligence, the ability of programming, the development of a technology capable of controlling the route of a ship, using navigation organs far beyond the conventional, which find their way with the help of the stars.
• The Iliad and the Odyssey include not only catalogs of the races and gods of the Greeks, but also catalogs of their technical achievements and inventions. The automata possess a prominent position among these inventions.
• Homer introduces the term ‘automaton’ in order to describe self-moving machines. He presents Hephaestus, the god of technology, as the manufacturer of automatic tripods, adaptive bellows and gold woman-like robots. In this way, Homer formulates modern technological visions, such as:
– It would be possible to manufacture automobile machines to replace human laborers.
– It would be possible for these machines to operate automatically for production purposes and to have their operation regulated as needed for work at hand.
– It would also possible be to manufacture man-like machines (robots), programmable
by means of proper software, capable of obeying commands and communicating verbally.
– Homer ends up with the Phaeacians’ ships, possessing artificial intelligence.
• The problem of the necessary internal energy of the automata is solved, at first, by the Presocratic philosophers, who consider the fundamental elements of nature as possessing a ‘soul’, i.e., energy. The practical utilization of this energy occurs in the Hellenistic period.
• The control problem is also examined firstly from a theoretical perspective by the Presocratics, who introduce the concepts of contradiction and feedback. The practical application of control problem is completed later by the Alexandrian engineers.
• Homer paved the way to the history of automata.”
*NovoScriptorium: Our comment in the article titled ‘Mycenean Technology’ is valid for here, too. Read here https://novoscriptorium.com/2019/04/19/mycenean-technology/
Research-Selection-Comments: Philaretus Homerides