The Turk

Get To Know History’s Greatest Robots

Robotic inventions have fascinated, amazed, and helped humans for thousands of years. Here are seven of history’s greatest self-operating machines.


Nobody knows who created history’s first robot, but some historians claim it was Archytas, an ancient Greek mathematician who constructed a steam-powered wooden pigeon between 400 and 350 BCE. The robotic bird could reportedly “fly” for more than 650 feet along a wire suspension line before running out of steam.


One of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous inventions was a human-like robot resembling a Germanic knight, which Leonardo drew (and possibly built) around 1495. But years earlier, around 1478, the polymath envisioned a self-propelled cart that many experts now consider to be history’s first programmable automaton.

Instead of steam power or an internal combustion engine, the car-like vehicle was powered by a wound-up spring, and ran on clockwork. The cart’s operator could also make the wheels turn at specific points in time during a journey by placing pegs into small holes.

In 2004, Italian experts teamed up with computer designers, engineers, and carpenters to make a real-life model of Leonardo’s moving machine. Lo and behold, it operated as he originally intended. (Experts demonstrated a one-third scale replica of the cart, fearing a full-size replica of the powerful vehicle would crash and harm someone.)


In 1770, inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen built the Mechanical Turk—a life-size, chess-playing automaton, clad in traditional Turkish garments—to entertain Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. There was just one catch: The machine was a fraud.

The Mechanical Turk sat at a wooden cabinet filled with cogs, gears, and other mechanisms, with a chessboard on top. More often than not, the automaton won a match, and it even traveled across Europe and America, playing against (and beating) luminaries like Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

Naysayers suspected the machine didn’t operate independently, and they were right. Von Kempelen (and later, an engineer named Johann Maelzel, who purchased the Turk from Von Kempelen) recruited talented chess players who hid inside the Mechanical Turk’s cabinet and operated the Turk’s arm with…