Everytime I read Homer I fall in love a little bit more. Here I shall share some excerpts from one of my favourite passages from The Iliad (as translated by E.V. Rieu, in the updated version by Peter Jones with D.C.H. Rieu).
To set the scene, Thetis has gone to Hephaestus to ask him to make a replacement set of armour for her son Achilles. Most characters in Homer have a formulaic nick name — you’ve possibly heard the one about rosy-fingered Dawn — but consider also the wine dark sea, ox-eyed Lady Hera. These names indicate something of the appearance of the subject but not much more. We are left to make up our own minds on the defining characteristics from the behaviour of the individuals in question (though on the wine-dark sea, see this wonderful piece on colours by Caroline Lawrence). In the same way, the poet gives away nothing of the skill of Hephaestus in his nick name – he is merely ‘the famous lame god’. However, after these descriptions of the wonders of Hephaestus’ workshop, no one can be in any doubt:
Thetis found Hephaestus hard at work and sweating as he bustled about at the bellows in his forge. He was making a set of twenty tripods to stand round the walls of his well-built hall. He had fitted golden wheels to all their feet so that they could run off to a meeting of the gods and return home again, all self-propelled — an amazing sight. (Iliad 18.370-379)
One wonders what the twenty tripods were up to at the meeting of the gods, and whether or not anyone saw them travelling there under their own steam… Anyway! Thirty or so lines on and we are offered this next marvel:
Waiting-women hurried along to help their master. They were made of gold, but looked like real girls and could not only speak and use their limbs but were also endowed with intelligence and had learned their skills from the immortal gods. While they scurried round to support their lord, Hephaestus moved unsteadily to where Thetis was seated. (Iliad 18.418-422)
Although it does not say that Hephaestus made them himself, the implication is clear: The famous lame god has invented robots, and hired the other gods to teach them useful skills, as well as compassion and general helpfulness.
Finally, in case any reader has glossed over those first miraculous creations, Homer offers us a third: Hephaestus also appears to have invented voice-controlled intelligent bellows to aid him in his work.
Hephaestus went back to his forge, where he turned the bellows on the fire and told them to get to work. The bellows — there were twenty of them — blew through the nozzles and gave healthy blasts from different directions, fast or slow to suit the needs of the busy blacksmith, depending on the stage the work had reached. (Iliad 18.468-473)
The famous lame god, indeed!
If you know of any robots from literature earlier than Homer, please do let me know in the comments.