This work is a work-in-progress inspired by robotic structures from the 12-14 century. With a vast number of robots in development for industry, academia, and even for intimate spaces that all follow a similar narrative of what robots should do and look like, this project strives to learn about ways in which robots imagined and created in the medieval era can inspire and influence today’s technology.

  • Role: Creator, Researcher
  • Collaborators: Molly Wright Steenson, Nur Yildirim, Judy Oden Choi, Juliet Pusateri, Reuben Aronson.
  • This project was funded and supported by the 2019 ProSEED/Crosswalk CMU Grant.

The goal of this project is to question our perception of the role and design of robotics in light of historical automata. By constructing a robot as imagined in Medieval ages, we reconsider some of the values from that time, that were different than the ones we take into consideration today when designing technology. We hope this work will expand the boundaries of what is considered interaction with robots.

We began with reviewing literature about medieval robots, that included both real automata that was constructed at that time and automata that was imaged in the literature, and therefore existed in people’s minds. One example is a 13th century Karakorum Fountain “shaped like a tree” that used pneumatic and hydraulic technology. The piece was described with “Four lions on the base of the tree spouted mare’s milk from their mouths, while four gilded serpents… belched forth wine, honey and rice mead” (Truitt, 2015).

Yet these historical pieces tend to be forgotten as new technologies emerge and take their spot in the foreground of development. Very few projects in robotics consider the functionality and design suggested by historical robots. By re-creating medieval robots, we hope to encourage a discussion about the values they express, how and why they were designed differently than robotics today, and how they might inspire the design of future robots.

Karakorum Fountain. Source.


Inspired by historical literature, we explored materials, structures and interactions for interaction with modern medieval robots. Our leading principle, that seemed to be the common ground in many of the historical interactions we reviewed was the idea of social frictionMany of the automata from the 12-14th centuries were focused on supporting interactions between people, by either decreasing social friction and encouraging socially appropriate behaviors, or increasing social friction to motivate people to act.

The Alabaster Chamber
The historical depiction that we focus on is the one of the Chambre de Beautés, or Alabaster Chamber. This structure is describes as four beautiful golden automata, adorn with precious gems and stones, in four corners of a room made of alabaster. The room is intended for hosting guests, with each robot fulfilling a different role to serve the crowd.

A maiden holds up a mirror to the inhabitants of the chamber so that they may see a true reflection of their appearance. They would look at their reflection and immediately know of what was unpleasant in their dress.

The second maiden holds her audience literally captive with acrobatic feats and conjuring, preventing them from leaving the chamber prematurely and offending their hosts…It is difficult for anyone to leave the Chamber while she is conjuring trick.

The first male automoton plays music so sweetly that no one could listen to it or hear it and be in low spirits or be in pain. People there are not gripped by foolish ideas, unpleasant thoughts, or ridiculous desires. The music is of great benefit to the listeners, for they can talk loudly, and none can overhear.

Lastly, the second male automaton served the most valuable purpose: it would watch each person in the chamber and by means of signs, convey to them what they ought to do and what was most necessary for them: it would apprise them of these things without other people perceiving it. . . .What it showed was truly secret: none else could know it, not I nor anyone else other than the person it was meant for.

Source: “Trei poete, sages dotors, qui mout sorent di nigromance”: Knowledge and Automata in Twelfth-Century French Literature / E. R. Truitt

Chambre de Beautés. Source.

Future Work

Through the process of making, we are now gaining insight about the relevance of medieval robots to modern robotics. We believe sharing an interactive result with others can bring a new perspective and allow designers, artists and technologists to have a conversation about the current trajectory of social and personal robots.

Updates on the exhibition coming soon!