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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of ideas about machines imitating living creatures, and the questions they raise about the differences between machinery and humanity.

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of real and imagined machines that appear to be living, and the questions they raise about life and creation. Even in myth they are made by humans, not born. The classical Greeks built some and designed others, but the knowledge of how to make automata and the principles behind them was lost in the Latin Christian West, remaining in the Greek-speaking and Arabic-speaking world. Western travellers to those regions struggled to explain what they saw, attributing magical powers. The advance of clockwork raised further questions about what was distinctly human, prompting Hobbes to argue that humans were sophisticated machines, an argument explored in the Enlightenment and beyond.

The image above is Jacques de Vaucanson's mechanical duck (1739), which picked up grain, digested and expelled it. If it looks like a duck...


Simon Schaffer
Professor of History of Science at Cambridge University

Elly Truitt
Associate Professor of Medieval History at Bryn Mawr College


Franziska Kohlt
Doctoral Researcher in English Literature and the History of Science at the University of Oxford

Producer: Simon Tillotson

Available now

52 minutes

Last on

Thu 20 Sep 2018 21:30


Simon Schaffer at the University of Cambridge

Elly Truitt at Bryn Mawr College

Franziska Kohlt at the University of Oxford

‘Mysticism and Machines’ by E. R. Truitt - History Today, July 2015

‘Ancient dreams of intelligent machines: 3,000 years of robots’ by Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal – Nature, July 2018

‘Preternatural Machines’ by E. R. Truitt - Aeon



Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2011)

Adrienne Mayor, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (Princeton University Press, forthcoming November 2018)

Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

E. R. Truitt, Medieval Robots: Magic, Mechanism, Nature, and Art (University of Pennsylvania, 2015)

Adelheid Voskuhl, Androids in the Enlightenment: Mechanics, Artisans, and Cultures of the Self (University of Chicago Press, 2013)

Gaby Wood, Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (Faber & Faber, 2002)



Role Contributor
Presenter Melvyn Bragg
Interviewed Guest Simon Schaffer
Interviewed Guest Elly Truitt
Interviewed Guest Franziska Kohlt
Producer Simon Tillotson


  • Thu 20 Sep 2018 09:00
  • Thu 20 Sep 2018 21:30

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