Robots in the Clark Library

Published: January 10, 2013

Nina Schneider, Head Cataloger

automata old and new cover

While cataloging my way through the Sette of Odd Volumes, I ran across number 29 of the Sette’s privately printed opuscula, entitled Automata Old and New by Conrad William Cooke, Mechanick to the Sette. Delivered at a meeting of the Sette held at Limmer’s Hotel on November 6, 1891, this essay made me wonder about additional robotic treasures at the Clark.

automata old and new p1

The word “robot” is derived from the Czech word robota, or labor, and first used by Karel Capek (or perhaps his brother, Josef, depending on whom you ask) in a play published in 1920. When we think about robots today, we think about mechanical and programmable laborers helping us complete mundane, repetitive, or precise tasks. Sometimes we think of emotional therapy, the Mars landscape, or evil killing machines when we think of robots, but robots are as ancient as ancient Greece.

According to Mr. Cooke, automata was described in Homer’s Iliad, by contemporaries of Plato, and by Hero in his Spiritalia. These early inventions and experiments were designed to be useful and entertaining. Movement was made possible with water and air pressure. Athanasius Kircher began using magnets in the mid-17th century (see his Magnes, sive, De arte magnetic in UCLA’s Special Collections [call no. QC751.K63m 1654]) and a century later, wheels, gears, and tracks prompted elaborate and curious mechanical works that proved profitable.

Image of automaton from v. 4, no. 4 of Jay's Journal of Anomalies"
Image of automaton from v. 4, no. 4 of Jay’s Journal of Anomalies”

Ricky Jay, a modern scholar, collector, actor, and sleight-of-hand artist, published a number of essays on the history of some of these automata in a quarterly periodical Jay’s Journal of Anomalies that started in 1994 (Press coll. Reagh). This is how I first became aware of these wonders.

jays journal

For those of you who worry about modern robots taking over and enslaving the human population, rest assured Isaac Asimov figured out how to prevent such a thing from happening. The three laws of robotics, explicated in his 20th century novel, I, Robot, are written to prevent such a scenario. At least we hope so.

Image of closed book
Image of closed book
Image of closed book
Image of closed book

Cooke, Conrad William (1843-1926)
Automata Old and New by Conrad William Cooke, M.Inst.E.E.
London: Imprinted at the Chiswick Press, 1893
Privately printed opuscula issued to members of the Sette of Odd Volumes; no. XXIX
Call no. SOV Opuscula 29

Jay’s Journal of Anomalies
Los Angeles: W. & V. Dailey Rare Books
Vol. 4, no. 4 (2000)
Call no. Press coll. Reagh

I, Robot: Three Laws of Robotics
Loket, Czech Republic : Jan & Jarmila Sobota, 2007
30 numbered and signed copies.
Call no. Press coll. Sobota

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Joseph Bristow on

This is just to say how much we are benefiting from Nina’s scrupulous cataloging of the amazing Sette of Odd Volumes.

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