From our earliest dreams of golems and Galatea, people have wanted to create artificial beings with human characteristics and abilities. But in our haste to see a future of walking, talking mechanical humanoids, we're easily fooled by con artists looking to exploit our sense of wonder. Hoaxers and engineers, magicians and advertising agencies have sold the public on "robots" whose incredible abilities seemed to defy explanation. We pull the curtain back on some the fake automata that captured the human imagination.
Psycho: Automata were all the rage in the US and Europe in the late 19th Century. Most were merely intricate mechanical dolls and toys that performed pre-set actions, but a handful appeared capable of interacting with their environment. One of the most famous of these was Psycho, the creation of John Nevil Maskelyne. Maskelyne was an inventor and stage magician, a member of The Magic Circle, which worked to dispel the notion of supernatural powers, and innovator of the levitation illusion. Psycho, a doll dressed as an Eastern sorcerer, would pick up playing cards from a rack in order to spell words, do mathematical problems, and perform tricks, all the while smoking a cigarette. Although Psycho appeared to move of his own accord, he was actually a puppet, operated by a series of bellows. Those bellows were eventually dismantled and Psycho was donated to the Museum of London. Joice Heth: PT Banum launched his famed career as a hoaxer with Joice Heth. In 1835, Barnum purchased Heth, a blind and paralyzed slave, and toured her around the country as George Washington's own wet nurse, claiming that she was over 160 years old. When Heth's appeal began to fade, Barnum reinvented his attraction. When he began claiming that Heth was not merely an aged woman, but an automaton made from whale bone, India rubber, and an ingenious network of springs, people again flocked to the exhibit, trying to determine whether or not she was a real person. Upon her death, Barnum had Heth publicly autopsied. Not only was she a human being, she was no more than 80 years old.
Enigmarelle: Another product of the automaton craze, Enigmarelle was a life-sized creature with a lumbering gait and a wax face. The alleged automaton could reportedly ride a bike, write its name, and know to turn corners as it walked, although it could neither hear nor speak. Its "inventor" Frederick Ireland claimed that Enigmarelle's incredible walking and riding abilities stemmed from an equilibrium system based on the human inner ear. As "proof" of the machine's authenticity, the hands and legs were removed during shows and its body and head opened to reveal electrical workings. It has been suggested that Enigmarelle was, in fact, manned by an amputee to create that very effect. Still, the less-than-automatic automaton enjoyed a 30 year career in vaudeville.
Quasar Domestic Android: Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of science fiction movies, Quasar Industries announced in 1978 that it would soon be mass-producing domestic household robots. Quasars would be able to dust, vacuum (not anticipating the Roomba, Quasars would use a separate vacuum cleaner), mow the lawn, walk the dog, and teach children French. At a demonstration, the domestic android was strangely animated, intelligent, and conversant in a number of topics. Skeptical roboticists who attended the demonstration quickly discovered a man in the audience who muttered into his hand each time the robot spoke, and the project was eventually outed as a press-seeking hoax.
Lisa the Perfect Woman: This summer, the blandly named AI Robotics announced that they have completed a fully functioning robotic woman. "Lisa" (possibly named for the AI creation in "Weird Science") is supposedly "designed for all men who have not found their soulmate" — a soulmate who cooks, cleans, plays video games, and provides sex on demand without being weighed down by pesky emotions or desires. As if the uber-creepy promo video weren't enough to convince you of the product's nonexistence, these robots were supposed to go on sale this past June. It's still unclear, however, what purpose, if any, the hoax had.
Mini Cooper Autonomous Robot: A website allegedly set up by a UK researcher claimed that the researcher had built an autonomous, Transformers-like bipedal robot from a Mini Cooper. The robot was supposed to be over 10 feet tall, powered by an internal combustion engine, and running on Linux. The site garnered a great deal of attention from sites like Slashdot, but was ultimately discovered to be a viral marketing campaign launched by BMW.
Boilerplate: Boilerplate was a mechanical man unveiled at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. He was fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt, saved an expedition to Anarctica, and saved Pancho Villa's life. Boilerplate mysteriously vanished in WWI, which would be a tragedy had he ever actually existed in the first place. The Boilerplate website, which features specs for other Victorian robots, was an inadvertent hoax perpetrated by Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan as a pitch for a graphic novel. But several visitors to the site believed that Boilerplate was a genuine, little-known historical figure, including comedian Chris Elliot, who committed an act of accidental plagiarism when he made the robot a character in his humorous historical novel.
The Digesting Duck: Artist and inventor Jacques de Vaucanson was inspired by Descartes' principle of the mechanistic universe to create a mechanical animal. The Canard Digerateur was said to have the ability to eat grain, digest it naturally, and defecate waste. The duck became a popular and oft-exhibited automaton, but didn't actually digest anything. The grain it ate was collected in a container inside the duck, while the "feces" were contained in a separate part. Physiologists were reportedly disappointed when the hoax was uncovered, as they had hoped to learn whether the process of digestion was chemical or mechanical. Even failing to digest anything, the duck was an impressive piece of machinery, otherwise faithfully based on the physiology and articulations of a natural duck, and was one of the first automata to use rubber hose.
The Mechanical Turk: Arguably the most notorious mechanical hoax, the Turk had a marked impact on contemporary notions of machines and even modern AI. Wolfgang von Kempelen, a pioneer in phonetics, created an "automated" chess player to exhibit at the court of Austria's Empress Maria Theresa. Like later automata, the Turk included a doll in Eastern dress. The doll stood over a clockwork cabinet and played chess against human opponents, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. The Turk toured Europe and later America, and became a popular attraction that confounded engineers and chess players alike. The hoax was exposed 50 years after Kempelen's death and three years after the Turk itself was destroyed: a chess player was cleverly disguised inside the cabinet. The Turk spawned numerous imitators, most famously Ajeeb and Mephisto. It is thought to have inspired the likes of Charles Babbage and Edmund Cartwright, and sparked a great deal of discussion about artificial intelligence.