Of automatons and robots – a history in pictures

The dream of robots assisting doctors and revolutionizing medicine is not new. On the contrary it goes back a long way and tells the story of a robot turtle, automats and speaking androids.  

5 min
Hildegard Kaulen
Published on April 27, 2021

For 2,000 years we humans have wanted to build machines that look like us. For a long time, automatons were the best that contemporary engineers could produce. Humanoid robots did not emerge until 1970. Prior to that, they belonged to the world of science fiction. 

The first robots were built for industry: with their movable arms they took on tasks that were too tiring or dangerous for humans, if not downright impossible. The first surgical robots were introduced at the end of the 1990s. They did not replace doctors, but rather assisted them. Thanks to artificial intelligence, more and more sophisticated applications are being realized – although there has been an unexpected acceptance gap, the “uncanny valley” effect. If a humanoid robot is too realistic, it makes people uneasy. Apparently our technological alter ego shouldn't be too lifelike after all.
Mademoiselle Claire in 1912

In 1912, Robert Herdner presented an automaton that was named after a nurse. Using gears, levers, cords, return chains and a spring as a drive, she could hand surgical instruments to the doctor.

Robots in industry

In 1961, the car manufacturer General Motors introduced the first movable robotic arm known as Unimate. The picture shows a man bottling radioactive isotopes using a robotic arm.

Robot turtle

In 1951, W. Gray Walter presented a robot turtle that moved towards light, fled from too much light and dodged when it encountered an obstacle. This was achieved thanks to a photocell, a touch sensor and two vacuum tubes.


Lumena was a transparent, talking robot that helped medical students to learn the female anatomy from 1950 onwards. 11 kilometers of cabling were used for the detailed depiction of veins, nerves and organs.

Robots are mortal too

Sim One was the first android robot for the training of anesthetists. Developed in 1967, it could breathe, had a beating heart, blinked, opened its mouth, and responded to medication. And when doctors made a mistake it died.

What about robots in modern medicine? 

By Hildegard Kaulen

Hildegard Kaulen, PhD, is a molecular biologist. Following positions at Rockefeller University in New York and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, she now works as a freelance science journalist for newspapers and scientific magazines.