Posts Tagged ‘Anatomy’

The Strange World of Clockwork Robots

June 6, 2013

I find most of the material on TV now remarkable only for how uninteresting I find it. But occasionally on eof the TV companies puts on a little gem. One of these was Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on BBC 4 last Monday night at 9 pm. Presented by Professor Simon Schaffer, it was a history of European automato in the 17th and 18th centuries. Schaffer’s an historian of science, who has appeared on a number of other shows on the history of science. In this programme he discussed the way the development of clockwork in the Middle Ages had produced automata, little robots that were used in the most magnificent clocks. He showed the vast medieval clock in Berne in Switzerland with its numerous figurines. He then went to the palace of one the Austrian bishops, who had a Protestant clockmaker construct an entire clockwork town, complete with animals being slaughtered, artisans busy at their trades and all overseen by aristocrats, who themselves scarcely seemed to move. Schaffer noted this represented the ideal social hierarchy of which the Bishop was a part. The Bishop was supported in his wealthy by profits from the salt mines. The miners themselves were radical, and mostly Protestants. This had resulted in a crackdown by the Roman Catholic authorities. The Protestant mineworkers were banished. The clockmaker himself was forced to work under armed guard because of his sympathies.

Vaucanson’s Replicant Fluteplayer

The programme then moved on Jacques Vaucanson, whose works were surely more like clockwork replicants than simple authomata. Vaucanson was deeply impressed with the technology that lay behind these great robotic marvels. He believed that it would be possible to use it to create an artificial human being. So he spent his evenings studying human anatomy, dissecting cadavers in order to replicate them more accurately in his art. His greatest creation was a mechanical flute player, which actually player the flute. A set of bellows acted as lungs, to blow air into the instrument, while the figure’s hands moved to cover and uncover the holes. It was even covered with real skin. This mechanical marvel disappeared sometime in the 19th century in eastern Europe, and no-one knows where it is, or even if it still exists.

The Writing Boy of Jacquet Droz

Then there was Jacquet Droz, one of whose automata was a little boy that actually wrote. Schaffer explained that the key technological component of these automata was the cam, a wheel that moved the other pins and lever in the machines. The shape of the wheel governed the movement of the other levers, working the machines’ limbs. They thus acted as a kind of mechanical memory, storing the instructions for the automata’s movements. The great complicated automata, such as Vaucanson’s flute player and Droz’s writer, had a number of them stacked one on top the other within the machines in a column. This column rose and fell as each camn was selected in turn to govern its part of the machine’s complex movements. The writing boy was particularly impressive as it physically wrote out on paper, ‘I am Jacquet Droz’ in French. It also drew a dog, and indeed, by changing the letters arranged in a wheel at the base of the figure, you could programme it to write anything you chose. Schaffer concluded that it was the distant ancestor of the modern programmable computer.

Poor Watchmakers and the Automaton as Revolutionary Symbol of Aristocratic Class Oppression

These marvels were able to be produced through the intensive labour of poorly paid watchsmiths. These occupied particular areas of towns, such as Clerkenwell in London. There would be six or seven of them gathered around a table, working by candlelight to make a single component, such as an arm for the escapement mechanism. Schaffer noted that the technology began to acquire revolutionary implications. In the decades before the French Revolution, artisans and the working class began to claim equality with their lords and masters. These mechanical marvels were made for an exclusive audience of aristocrats. Jacquet Droz charged deliberately high prices so that only the upper crust could view them, and put up notices stating that servants would not be allowed in. The French Revolutionaries in their turn claimed that the king and the aristocracy were simply automata themselves, dressed in expensively lace. It was a dehumanising description that allowed them to send their monarch to the guillotine.

Automata, the Eccentric Monsieur Merlin, and the Export Trade with China

Over the Channel in England, automata were seen as a way of winning the export battle with China. Europeans craved expensive Chinese goods, such as porcelaine and tea. Frustratingly, the Chinese were completely uninterested with anything Europe had to offer, with the exception of automata. The British entrepreneur James Cox thus set to work making them for export to China. His greatest employee was a Belgian emigre called Merlin. Merlin was highly eccentric. When he appeared in public, it was dressed as a bar maid, serving drinks, while playing the violin rolling around on roller skates, which he had also invented. He wasn’t always able to stop. In one incident, recorded in the papers, he collided with a £40,000 mirror, which he smashed to ribbons. Merlin’s greatest creation was a mechanical swan. Glass rods mimicked the actions of water. Between them sawm little mechanical fish. When activated, the swan moved its head, bent down, and took and ate one of the fish.

Schaffer concluded the programme by comparing the storage of information on the automata’s cam systems, with the reproduction of speech on vinyl records, playing the programme out to a suitable piece of music.

Contemporary Automata, Musical Robots, and Automata as Inspiration for Dr. Who Monsters.

It was a fascinating programme. There have been a number of exhibitions of automata in recent years. You can find footage of them, including Jacquet Droz’s writing boy and Merlin’s swan on Youtube. The tradition of musical robots has also been taken up by Compressorhead. This is a genuinely all robot band, which I believe come from Germany. As robots, they naturally play Heavy Metal. You can find footage of them playing Motorhead’s Ace of Spades. Several of the automata clearly inspired some of the monsters in Dr. Who. Clockwork androids featured in a David Tennant episode, where the good doctor had to defend Madame Pompadour from being turned into spare parts for a stranded spaceship far in the future. The programme also featured the chess-playing Turk. This was an elaborate hoax. It was supposedly a mechanical figure of a Turk that played chess. It toured Europe, beating just about all the chess masters it played against. That was until its secret was revealed. The cabinet beneath the figure was actually large enough to hold a full-sized man, who moved the arms of the figure above him. He could even follow the game by looking upwards. There was a nod to this in a recent Dr. Who episode. Penned by the mighty Neil Gaiman, this had a hollowed-out cyberman that played chess, secretly worked by a dwarf. The dwarf was played by Warwick Davis, now showing that you can have a career after appearing as an Ewok.

Automata and the Industrial Revolution

Schaffer also noted that the automata may also have served as inspiration for the mechanised looms of the industrial revolution. In a meeting with his fellow factory masters, Joseph Arkwright had wondered if it wouldn’t be possible to produce mechanical arms to work the looms similar to the mechanical arms of the automata. Surveying the merchanical arms on the industrial looms, Schaffer wondered if it wasn’t too far-fetched to see the similarity between them and those of the automata.

M. Merlin and the Artist as Eccentric, Then and Now

The programme also showed how old the relationship between art and personal eccentricity had been. Since Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and the Surrealists artists have been linked to outrageous behaviour. So outrageous at times, that George Orwell felt compelled to attack the special treatment with which artists are indulged for attitudes and behaviour that would be condemned as completely unacceptable amongst Joe Public in his article, ‘Benefit of Clergy’. M. Merlin’s bizarre appearance and behaviour clearly qualifies him for inclusion with the other, contemporary masters of the bizarre and shocking, such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and the Chapman Brothers, and some of the other winners of the Turner Prize. One of these also dresses in female attire. This part of the programme shows that art has always contained more than element of showmanship, and that artists have been shocking, scandalising and entertaining the public with bizarre displays of personal behaviour since the 18th century, if not long before. It didn’t just emerge with the Surrealists and the Situationists in the ’20s and 60’s.

Schaffer did get something wrong, however. He seemed to suggest that clockwork first emerged in order to regulate town life. They didn’t. They emerged to regulate the times of prayer of the church, so that even villages had clocks. These also could possess automata. One of the devices portrayed in the notebook of the great thirteenth century architect and engineer, Villard de Honnecourt, is for a clockwork angel that revolved to face the sun. Nevertheless, Schaffer’s programme was a fascinating documentary on the prehistory of modern robotics. Unfortunately it was placed on BBC 4, which the Beeb seems to see as dumping ground for all the intellectual stuff it should produce as a publicly funded broadcaster, but which don’t actually bring the ratings its bosses crave. It should, however, be available on BBC iplayer. Some of the programmes first shown on BBC 4 are repeated on BBC 2. I hope that’s the case, as this fine programme deserves a wider audience.

See below for a piece from Youtube of Jacquet Droz’s automata, including the writing boy.

And here’s the awesome Compressorhead. Is it just me, or do they really look like the robots Art Robot Kevin O’Neill used to draw in the Robusters and ABC Warriors strips in 2000 AD.

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‘Anatomia Theologica’: Dissection as Display of the Superb Divine Design of the Human Body

May 28, 2013

Another myth about the supposed religious opposition to Scientific advance is the belief that the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages placed a ban on human dissection. In fact human bodies were dissected at Bologna University in 1275 by the surgeon William of Saliceto. His Chirurgia was the first topographical anatomy. It relied heavily on classical sources, but nevertheless also included Saliceto’s own observations. These included the damage to sustained by the internal organs of a man wounded in the chest. The University also carried out post-mortems to ascertain the cause of death. Mondino of Luzzi introduced regular public dissections at the university for teaching purposes when he became a professor there.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the argument from design for the existence of God also stimulated interest in human anatomy. For scholars such as Friedrich Hoffman, professor of medicine and physics at Halle, Georg Albrecht Hamberger of Jena, and the physicist and Lutheran theologian Johann Friedrich Wucherer, the intricate mechanism of the human body clearly pointed to the existence of a superbly brilliant Designer. This was clearly expressed in their works, which were written to show God’s amazing skill in shaping the human body, and the Almighty as a suitable subject for awe and worship. This argument from the immense intricacy of the human form was known as Anatomia Theologica. Although human dissection was permitted, there was nevertheless much opposition to it. It was believed that dissection of a person’s corpse would lead to that person being incomplete in the next world. As a result, such dissections were performed on criminals as a form of final humiliation. The elevated view of the human body as a demonstration of the Lord’s existence and superb skill in Anatomia Theologica challenged this hostility to dissection. For anatomists such as Lorenz Heister of Helmstedt and Albrecht von Haller believed that dissection could not be wrong if it served to reveal more fully God’s intricate craftsmanship. They therefore held public dissections to display God’s handiwork in the human form.

Thus Christian attitudes could lead to a hostility to human dissection, but this did not prevent academics using it to investigate and teach anatomy. It also served in Germany to promote anatomical science as further evidence of God’s superb design shown in humanity’s very fabric.

Charles Bell: Surgeon, Expert on the Nervous System, and Christian Apologist

May 27, 2013

One of the contributors to the volume of Natural Theology, The Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation was the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century surgeon and anatomist, Charles Bell. Bell was the son of a Scots Episcopalian minister, who studied medicine at Edinburgh University. After graduation, he moved to London, where he set up a school of anatomy. As well as doctors and surgeons, Bell also taught anatomy to artists, and his lectures for them were published in 1806 as The Anatomy of Expression. With his partner, Wilson, he took over the Windmill Street School of Anatomy. He conducted research on the human nervous system, publishing A New Idea of the Anatomy of the Brain and Nervous System in 1811. In it he noted that stimulating the anterior root of the spinal nerves resulted in contractions. This did not occur when the posterior root was stimulated. This formed the basis of Magendie’s identification of sensory and motor nerves. Bell also described the trigeminal and facial nerves of the face. It was Bell’s student, Mayo, however, who realised that the facial nerves were motor and the trigeminal sensory. He became surgeon to the Middlesex Hospital in 1814. After the Battle of Waterloo the following year, he and his brother-in-law, John Shaw, rushed over to the battlefield to provide medical aid for the wounded troopers on both sides. During his work there he sketched the horrific wounds the soldiers had sustained during the Battle. In 1830 he published a further edition of his work, Nervous System of the Human Body, which has been recognised as a classic of medical literature. In 1836 he moved back to Edinburgh, where he had been appointed to the chair of surgery. It was Bell, who gave his name to the condition, Bell’s Palsy, and the thoracic nerve of Bell.

Bell was also deeply religious, and he was invited to contribute to the above book of Natural Theology by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London. The book was written according to the provisions of the will of the Earl of Bridgwater, who set up a trust fund for that purpose. Bell’s contribution was the chapter, ‘The Hand: its Mechanisms and Vital Endowments, as evincing design, and illustrating the power, wisdom and goodness of God’, published in 1833.

Bell’s career demonstrates that during the 19th century a prominent and brilliant surgeon and medical scientist could not only be a devout Christian, but also use his knowledge to proclaim God’s existence and glory. While the argument from biological design has been largely discredited following Darwin, nevertheless Bell is outstanding as a both a medical figure and someone who tried to put their faith into practice for God’s glory and the welfare of humanity.

Robert Boyle: Religious Knowledge also Entirely Suitable for Scientists

May 8, 2013

Atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins have stated and suggested, that real scientists should somehow not have an active religious faith or deep religious knowledge. Boyle in his Christian Virtuoso also challenged this attitude. He believed that just as people were rightly concerned to obtain a little scientific knowledge of subjects that did not have any use, like astronomy, so the scientist of Christian faith should also rightly be interested in the immaterial world of the divine. He wrote

‘I do not think the corporeal world, nor the present state of things, the only or the principal subjects, that an inquisitive man’s pen may be worthily employed about; and that there are some things, that are grounded neither upon mecfhanical nor upon chemical notices or experiments, that are yet far from deserving to be neglected, and much less to be despised, or so much as to be left uncultivated, especially by such writers, as being more concerned to act as Christians, than as virtuosi, must also think, that sometimes they may usefully busy themelves about the study of divine things, as well as at other times employ their thoughts about the inspection of natural ones. There are some subjects, whose nobleness is such, that though we derive no advantage from them, but the contentment of knowing them, and that but very imperfectly too; yet our virtuosi themselves justly think much pains and time, and perhaps cost too, well spent in in endeavouring to acquire some conjectural knowledge of them: as may be instanced in the assiduous and industrious researches they have made about the remote celestial parts of the world, especially the stars and comets, that our age has exposed to their curiosity. For most of these, though they require chargeable telescopes, and tedious, as well as unhealthy nocturnal observations, are objects, of which we can know very little with any certainty; and which, for ought appears, we can make no useful experiments with. Since therefore we so much prize a little knwledge of things, that are not only corporeal, but inanimate; methinks we should not undervalue the studies of those men, that aspire to the knowledge of incorporeal and rational beings, which are incomparably more noble than all the stars in the world, which are, as far as we know, but masses of seseless and stupid matter. Sinice also the virtuosi deservedly applaud and cherish the laborious industry of anatomists, in their inquiries into the structure of dead, ghastly, and oftentimes unhealthfully as well as offensively fetid bodies; can it be an imployment improper for a Christian virtuoso, or unworthy of him, to endeavour the discovery of the nature and faculties of the rational mind, which is that, that ennobles its mansion, and gives man the advantage he has of the beasts that perish?’

Thus Boyle also urged the study of the soul and God, as well as the subjects of earthly, scientific study. Astronomy has advanced considerably since Boyle’s time, and we now know far more about the nature of the stars, planets and cosmos. Nevertheless, his central point remains the same: religion, and religious knowledge, is still an eminently suitable subject for a scientist.