I've very often been wondering about how people used to think "back in the day" about all kinds of technical things.

For example, once it was common knowledge that factories existed, and most people had seen huge steam-powered trains and stuff like that, and maybe even construction machines and maybe a "time piece" or two shown off by some rich gentleman who lets the peasants gaze in awe over its intricate cogwheels and fine details in the ticking "portable clock"... then I'm sure that some people would have the thought of having steam-powered "metal men" who would perhaps work as servants or workers in mines or whatever.

But did they really think that this was "just around the corner", or "may even exist"? I'm no genius by any means, and even with my "modern eyes", I'm still very fascinated with even the earliest factories and crude, large mechanical machines, but even so, there is a very long stretch between being fascinated that a machine can mass-produce something automatically, entire without or with just a little help from human operators, and thinking that they could use the same technology in miniature format to make a human-like "robot servant" who would walk around in your house and serve tea and open the door and whatnot.

I mean, I can easily "understand" the general idea behind a factory machine, even if I can't make one myself or instruct others in detail on how to do it, but I literally have no idea how they could ever make such a robot even today, in the year 2020, since all my interactions with technology, even in this "far future" (from the point of view of the 19th century), have been of frustrations and disappointments. Back then, they obviously didn't have advanced computers like the one I'm typing this on, but then they should have been even more skeptical toward the idea of a "metal servant" than I am today, no?

It seems to me that the computing power required to emulate even the dumbest human servant would simply be impossible to make with cogwheels of the kind that existed in those days, like in one of those fascinating, hand-crafted mechanical watches. An entire grown man's body full of such wheels would not be able to do anything like the tasks expected from a servant, or even be able to detect walls and objects... or even walk upright.

For God's sake... they can't even do it today, 120 years later than 1899. The only robots I've ever seen video proof of have been absolutely pathetic. A big joke. Like the kind which has zero practical use and barely is impressive as a demo if your expectations are anything resembling the most basic kind of servant robot.

I don't like it when people think that people "back in the day" were complete morons and the average person today is so enlightened and smart... because it's just not the case. I think people back then of course fantasized about sci-fi scenarios, but I hardly think that they saw this as realistic or that the technology they had would move so fast forward as to let them have robot servants in their lifetime.

Note that, although my focus is the 1800s, I'm also interested in hearing what you think about people in even earlier times thought about these things.


3 Answers 3


It's hard to say what people "really think". Certainly in the 19th century the seed had already been planted. Beginning with a series of pulp novels starting with "The Steam Man of the Priaries" in 1868, mechanical men were nearly a subgenre in the 19th century.

Knowing what we know now, yes, it seems completely ridiculous that an intelligent being could be made from cogs and wheels, but that is due to 20-20 hindsight. Prior to actually trying to create human level intelligence, people greatly underestimated its difficulty. As late as 1970, people were still predicting real artificial intelligence in 15-20 years. When combined with fakery like the allegedly mechanical turk, it isn't hard to see that some thought such a thing was conceivable.

The core reason why people vastly underestimated the difficulty of artificial intelligence is that people assumed that if a machine could do what is hard for humans to do, then that machine must have close to a person's general intelligence. The thought was that since people have trouble with chess, and we could make machines that competed with humans at chess, that those machines were nearing our level. The fallacy is that those machines were designed for chess, while the human brain is not designed for chess. The human brain is designed to survive on the African plains. The brain power required to detect a lion in the grass is many orders of magnitude higher than that required to compete at chess. We don't see it because we're designed for that. Which is why computers can beat any human at chess but still can't compete at the image recognition tasks that would allow the driving of a car.

We know this now. Prior to the second half of the twentieth century we did not, and hence, that people thought you could do it with cogs and wheels is somewhat reasonable.

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    Who else should answer this Q eventually? Your Nick says it all? ;) Klaatu… Jan 14, 2020 at 22:49
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    maybe also add that automaton existed going back to antiquity, with some very life like examples in/after the renaissance
    – jk.
    Jan 15, 2020 at 12:51
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    Obligatory xkcd.
    – Zev Spitz
    Feb 17, 2020 at 13:21
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    I suppose the turk link should point to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanical_Turk
    – Pere
    Oct 6, 2021 at 15:20
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    Yup. Seems like the wiki link changed. Oct 6, 2021 at 21:46

Automaton have existed for many centuries. So yes, people in the 19th century were justified in thinking that `mechanical men' were a real possibility.

If you want to learn more about this, I suggest this In Our Time: Automata podcast. In my opinion, to a certain extent, they bring to life what ancient opinions about automata were.


After reading this question, the novel Time Machine, by HG Wells came to mind. He wrote that in the 1890s and his fantasy was definelty unique. If you have not read it, it may give you an idea of what they thought back then. Those science fiction writers of that Era may be the best ones to answer your curiosity.

Today the movies that are made about historical times are almost like time travel into the past. It may be all you want to experience of the past. On the other hand most of us get to time travel into the future about 8 hours a night. That's all for now.

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    It would be useful if you could cite a passage from the book which mentions the 'mechanical men' (or similar, if not that exact wording) which the OP requested. Apr 4, 2021 at 1:51

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