It sounds like the title of a science fiction mega-blockbuster: Robot vs. Automaton. Who’s the best of them all? Since robots and automatons are both machines, how are they different? Robots are virtual machines programmed to do a series of complex tasks. Automatons are machines that complete a simpler sequence of operations. Once built, a robot continues to change depending upon its program and adjustments to its artificial intelligence. On the other hand, an Automaton keeps doing what it is supposed to be doing without any more help, forevermore….

Mechanical automatons are not some 21st-century thing. In the 4th century, the mathematician Archytas of Tarentum dreamed up a mechanical bird he called "The Pigeon.”  As far back as the 10th century during the Western Zhou Dynasty in China, men made Automatons that could sing and dance. Imagine an automated machine of 1000+ years ago? Whoa. Byzantines supposedly constructed automatons that performed feats of engineering like water clocks with complex hydraulic jacks and moving figures.

Automatons work easily with all the right parts. A pair of hefty spring motors keep an automaton running for a long time! Swiss watchmaker Henri Maillardet used wind-up motors to help make a two-foot-high automaton that could draw and write. It traveled around Europe for 40+ years—and even headed to the United States with P. T. Barnum, the ringmaster of the biggest circus in town.

How does an Automaton work? Trying to imitate life with mechanical means shows a cool mix of art and science. The machine “reads” the surfaces of brass disks which then causes the Automaton to “write” or “draw.” The Maillardet Automaton from just before 1800 had the most extensive series of cranks and gears, not unlike a watch’s inner workings. It could write poems and draw ships!

In the popular book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, the main character is a young boy named Hugo in 1930s Paris. Hugo learns how to repair an automaton at the museum where his father works. When Hugo's father dies in a fire at the museum, Hugo’s uncle brings him to the train station to maintain the station clocks. Hugo survives there all on his own! Somehow, he rescues the automaton from the burnt museum in hopes of restoring it—and he succeeds. In the book, boy and Automaton become best friends.  Selznick based his story on the actual Mailliardet Automaton located in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

So, this leaves the cliff-hanger blog question of all time: what are Frankenbots? Robots or automatons? They are probably a little bit of both. Thanks to Sue’s smarts and construction talents, the Frankenbots are given basic skills from the start. However, they also seem to “make it up as they go along.”

What if you could create a robot or automaton? Which one would you create—and what would it do?