The first conversing automaton

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An article I'm writing led me to wonder when the idea of a conversing automaton first arose, or at least was first published. I'm ruling out magical creations like golems and divine statuary; brazen heads  seem to have either been magical or created using arcane secrets of alchemy; I don't know enough to evaluate the legend of King Mu and Yen Shih's automaton, whose conversational abilities are not clearly described in the texts I've found.

There are many early documented automata doing things like playing music, and plenty of enlightenment philosophizing about what human abilities might or might not be clockwork-like, so I would have thought that there would be plenty of fictional conversing automata over the past four or five hundred years.

But apparently not: it's possible that the first real example was as late as 1907 or even 1938.

The earliest conversing automaton might be Olimpia in E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 short story Der Sandmann (The Sandman). I say "might be" because her conversational contributions are quite limited. Here's Wikipedia's description:

Spallanzani gives a grand party at which it is reported that his daughter will be presented in public for the first time. Nathanael is invited, and becomes enraptured by Olimpia, who plays the harpsichord, sings and dances. Her stiffness of movement and coldness of touch appear strange to many of the company. Nathanael dances with her repeatedly, awed by her perfect rhythm, and eventually tells her of his passion for her, to which Olimpia replies only "Ah, ah!". During the following days, he visits Olimpia repeatedly, reading her the poems and mysticism that had so bored Clara, and Olimpia listens to it all and replies only "Ah, ah!", which Nathanael interprets as understanding. Most other people consider her dull and stupid, although pretty, and with strangely mechanical actions.

[The German original of Der Sandmann is here, and an English translation is here.]

The first fictional automaton that does more than sigh seems to be Hadaly in L'Eve Future (The Eve of the Future), a (wildly misogynistic) novel from 1886 by Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Here's Hadaly's first exchange in the French version of the book, followed by my attempt at an English translation:

A trois pas d'Edison et de lord Ewald, l'apparition s'arrêta; puis, d'une voix délicieusement grave:
–Eh bien, mon cher Edison, me voici! dit-elle.
Lord Ewald, ne sachant que penser de ce qu'il voyait, la regardait en silence.
–L'heure est venue de vivre, si vous voulez, miss Hadaly, répondit Edison.
–Oh! je ne tiens pas à vivre! murmura doucement la voix à travers le voile étouffant.
–Ce jeune homme vient de l'accepter pour toi!–continua l'électricien en jetant dans un récepteur la carte photographique de miss Alicia.
–Qu'il en soit donc selon sa volonté! dit, après un instant et après un léger salut vers lord Ewald, Hadaly.

Three steps from Edison and Lord Ewald, the apparition stopped; then, in a deliciously low voice:
–Well, my dear Edison, here I am! she said.
Lord Ewald, not knowing what to think of what he saw, looked at her in silence.
–The time has come to live, if you want, Miss Hadaly, responded Edison.
–Oh! I don't want to live! her voice murmured sweetly through the muffling veil.
–This young man comes to accept it for you! –continued the electrician, throwing in a tray the photograph of Miss Alicia.
–Then let it be as he wishes! said Hadaly, after a moment and after a nod toward Lord Ewald.

However, Hadaly's status as a conversing automaton also needs an asterisk, because (as Wikipedia puts it) "Ewald is very taken with her and she secretly reveals to him that she is in fact not simply an Android but has been supernaturally endowed with the spirit of Sowana, Edison's mystical assistant."

So maybe the earliest true conversing automaton is Tik-Tok in Frank Baum's 1907 Ozma of Oz, who also has the advantage of not being merely an emblem of the putative artificiality of women. Here are his first words, with a bit of context:

"I'll wind up his talk, and then perhaps he can tell us," said the girl.

So she wound up Number Two, and immediately the clock-work man said, without moving any part of his body except his lips:

"Good morn-ing, lit-tle girl. Good morn-ing, Mrs. Hen."

The words sounded a little hoarse and creakey, and they were uttered all in the same tone, without any change of expression whatever; but both Dorothy and Billina understood them perfectly.

"Good morning, sir," they answered, politely.

"Thank you for res-cu-ing me," continued the machine, in the same monotonous voice, which seemed to be worked by a bellows inside of him, like the little toy lambs and cats the children squeeze so that they will make a noise.

"Don't mention it," answered Dorothy. And then, being very curious, she asked: "How did you come to be locked up in this place?"

"It is a long sto-ry," replied the copper man; "but I will tell it to you brief-ly. I was pur-chased from Smith & Tin-ker, my man-u-fac-tur-ers, by a cru-el King of Ev, named Ev-ol-do, who used to beat all his serv-ants un-til they died. How-ev-er, he was not a-ble to kill me, be-cause I was not a-live, and one must first live in or-der to die. So that all his beat-ing did me no harm, and mere-ly kept my cop-per bod-y well pol-ished.

"This cru-el king had a love-ly wife and ten beau-ti-ful chil-dren—five boys and five girls—but in a fit of an-ger he sold them all to the Nome King, who by means of his mag-ic arts changed them all in-to oth-er forms and put them in his un-der-ground pal-ace to or-na-ment the rooms.

"Af-ter-ward the King of Ev re-gret-ted his wick-ed ac-tion, and tried to get his wife and chil-dren a-way from the Nome King, but with-out a-vail. So, in de-spair, he locked me up in this rock, threw the key in-to the o-cean, and then jumped in af-ter it and was drowned."

"How very dreadful!" exclaimed Dorothy.

"It is, in-deed," said the machine. "When I found my-self im-pris-oned I shout-ed for help un-til my voice ran down; and then I walked back and forth in this lit-tle room un-til my ac-tion ran down; and then I stood still and thought un-til my thoughts ran down. Af-ter that I re-mem-ber noth-ing un-til you wound me up a-gain."

"It's a very wonderful story," said Dorothy, "and proves that the Land of Ev is really a fairy land, as I thought it was."

Tik-Tok is definitely mechanical — as the card Dorothy found with him asserts:


Patent Double-Action, Extra-Responsive,
Thought-Creating, Perfect-Talking


Fitted with our Special Clock-Work Attachment.
Thinks, Speaks, Acts, and Does Everything but Live.

Manufactured only at our Works at Evna, Land of Ev.
All infringements will be promptly Prosecuted according to Law.

But still, this is fairyland, and Dorothy finds him in company with a talking hen.

So maybe we don't get real conversing automata until I, Robot in 1938?



  1. Narmitaj said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 3:54 pm

    The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (SFE) entry on Robots might be a interesting resource to look at for your article. Among other things, it mentions an earlier Hoffman work, 1814's "Automata", which has a Talking Turk (and its own Wikipedia entry, which suggests it is rather an odd story). It also mentions ancient Greek and 19thC robots/automata, though I don't know how many of them converse.

    It doesn't mention Baum and Tik-Tok*. There are Capek's rebellious robots in R.U.R. (1920) but they are more biological androids than automata.

    The SFE refers to some 1930s stories pre-dating "I,Robot" such as "J Storer Clouston's Button Brains (1933), a novel in which a robot is continually mistaken for its human model" and "David H Keller's "The Psychophonic Nurse" (November 1928 Amazing) is a cooperative servant, but no substitute for a mother's love. Abner J Gelula's "Automaton" (November 1931 Amazing) has lecherous designs on its creator's daughter and has to be destroyed [… and] "Helen O'Loy" (December 1938 Astounding) by Lester del Rey, in which a man marries the ideal mechanical woman".

    *There is an sf novel called Tik-Tok by John Sladek (BSFA Award winner in 1983); the Wikipedia entry says he is an intelligent robot named after the mechanical man in the Oz books, who has no "asimov circuits" and commits heinous crimes for fun and eventually becomes President of the USA.

  2. Michael Trittipo said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 4:09 pm

    Much depends on one's definition of an "automaton" — especially considering the reference to Descartes. Would you accept Čapek's "robots" in R.U.R. (1920)? They're made from some kind of synthetic organic material, a chemical that behaves like protoplasm, says the play, and they are assembled, rather than being grown: nerves spun on bobbins, and so on.

  3. Kyle B. said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 5:48 pm

    Depending on how technically possible you want it to be (that is, how far from "magic" the automatons are), the book 'Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology' by Adrienne Mayor and so Greek mythology may be relevant.

    I have not read it yet, but it argues that the Greek myths thought of automatons (some of which certainly could talk). An interview with the author covering the subject is available for free at if anyone is interested.

    I learned (though perhaps I had read this at some time) that Pandora was actually created by Hephaestus in the earliest versions of myths involving Pandora.

  4. Kai von Fintel said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 5:49 pm

    Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss automata on an episode of the marvelous *In our time* show:

  5. Dave Empey said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 6:22 pm

    Me, I'd vote for Baum's Tik-Tok, based on what you say here (and my own memories of the character.)

    The de l'Isle-Adam case is an example of a trope I'm always annoyed by, namely the idea that computers/robots/automatons can't have emotions/souls unless they are externally supplied by some mystical means (or sometimes technical means, e.g. Data's "emotion chip").
    Still, I suppose most people believe human beings have externally supplied souls so this is not really making out the robots to be any worse tha humans, I guess.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 7:59 pm

    Hephaestus was said to have populated his workshop with mechanical automatons, which presumably took verbal instruction. In some versions, Talos, the bronze guardian of Europa, was built by Hephaestus.

  7. Brett said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 8:43 pm

    The Maschinenmensch from Metropolis (both the legendary 1927 film directed by Fritz Lang and probably also the original 1925 novel by Lang's wife Thea von Harbou) could converse. As I pointed out in this Stack Exchange answer, it is probably the first instance where an android could effectively impersonate a human through intelligence and powers of illusion.

  8. Carl said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 8:52 pm

    Descartes in Discourse on Method speculates that a speaking automaton is possible, but reasons that it would never be able to carry on a conversation as well as the village idiot.

    I have no idea why this passage is not more often cited in literature on the history of AI but it’s quite explicit and not in an obscure text.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 7, 2019 @ 11:13 pm

    The story of the automaton in the Chinese Taoist text Lie Zi was clearly borrowed from the much earlier Indian Buddhist birth stories called the Jatakas, which date to around the 4th c. BC, as was conclusively demonstrated by Ji Xianlin. For the references, see Erik Zürcher, The Buddhist Conquest of China, p. 275.

  10. maidhc said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 3:52 am

    Brett: In the film version of Metropolis the robot is inert until it is combined with a human woman in some sort of mad scientist procedure (never really explained). It then takes on her appearance and can talk. I don't remember whether it actually converses or just gives speeches. But some kind of human quality was transferred to it before it could speak.

    Carl: Didn't Descartes believe that animals were just a kind of automaton, not capable of independent thought or free will? So with that example, it would be theoretically possible to build an automaton that could speak, but it would be no more able to converse than a dog or a parrot.

    There was a bronze automaton named Talos that prevented people from landing on Crete by throwing rocks at their ships. I didn't find any reference to Talos speaking, but he did understand speech. Medea convinced him to pull out the plug in his foot, and all the ichor ran out, killing him.

  11. Sili said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 7:17 am

    Sean Carroll's most recent _Mindscape_ podcast with Adrienne Mayor is titled "Gods and robots in ancient myth", but I haven't had a chance to actually listen to it yet.

  12. bks said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 7:51 am

    "Daedalus is said to have a devised a quicksilver-driven mechanism to give his figures the capacity to speak"

  13. Jeffrey Kallberg said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 8:23 am

    I assume Mark means to distinguish between "conversing" and "speaking," but if not, then Faber's Euphonia (1844-45) would be worth considering.

  14. Carl said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 11:28 am

    "And here I specially stayed to show that, were there such machines exactly resembling organs and outward form an ape or any other irrational animal, we could have no means of knowing that they were in any respect of a different nature from these animals; but if there were machines bearing the image of our bodies, and capable of imitating our actions as far as it is morally possible, there would still remain two most certain tests whereby to know that they were not therefore really men.

    "Of these the first is that they could never use words or other signs arranged in such a manner as is competent to us in order to declare our thoughts to others: for we may easily conceive a machine to be so constructed that it emits vocables, and even that it emits some correspondent to the action upon it of external objects which cause a change in its organs; for example, if touched in a particular place it may demand what we wish to say to it; if in another it may cry out that it is hurt, and such like; but not that it should arrange them variously so as appositely to reply to what is said in its presence, as men of the lowest grade of intellect can do.

    "The second test is, that although such machines might execute many things with equal or perhaps greater perfection than any of us, they would, without doubt, fail in certain others from which it could be discovered that they did not act from knowledge, but solely from the disposition of their organs: for while reason is an universal instrument that is alike available on every occasion, these organs, on the contrary, need a particular arrangement for each particular action; whence it must be morally impossible that there should exist in any machine a diversity of organs sufficient to enable it to act in all the occurrences of life, in the way in which our reason enables us to act."

    — René Descartes, Discourse on Method, Part V

    He clearly considers the possibility of a conversing automaton. He just rejects it as impossible due to mind/body dualism.

  15. Bob Ladd said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 11:43 am

    Descartes' first test as quoted by Carl sounds like an anticipation of the Turing test (or of Searle's Chinese Room test).

  16. Kenneth Easwaran said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 12:00 pm

    At least by the 1881 performance of Offenbach's opera, "Les Contes d'Hoffmann", Olimpia sings an entire aria (though she repeatedly needs to be wound back up by her "father" as her clockwork runs down singing "ahh" on a high pitch that sinks downward).

    [(myl) Yes, but a gramaphone can also sing an aria, if kept wound adequately.]

  17. Tiger Webb said,

    April 8, 2019 @ 7:34 pm

    In a non-Clarkeian sense, the distinction between mystical and mechanical was probably less to medieval Europeans than it is to us today. As your fellow Penn-ite (?) E R Truitt writes in Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art:

    "Although medieval Europeans had figured out how to build the same kinds of complex automata that people in other places had been designing and constructing for centuries, they did not stop believing in preternatural causes. They merely added ‘mechanical’ to the list of possible explanations. Just as one person’s ecstatic visions might equally be attributed to divine inspiration or diabolical trickery, a talking or moving statue could be ascribed to artisanal or engineering know-how, the science of the stars, or demonic art. Certainly the London goldsmiths in 1377 were in no doubt about how the marvellous angel worked. But because a range of possible causes could animate automata, reactions to them in this late medieval period tended to depend heavily on the perspective of the individual."

  18. Carl said,

    April 9, 2019 @ 8:13 am


    I've said for a while the "Turing Test" should be called "the first Cartesian test".

    As for the second test, I think it basically holds up today as the distinction between AI/ML as we have it and a theoretical "artificial general intelligence" AGI or "strong AI". We can make an algorithm to solve any finite problem, but so far there's no algorithm that makes an algorithm to solve etc.

  19. Dave said,

    April 10, 2019 @ 9:16 am

    Mark, where would ELIZA fall with regard to your "conversing" criterion?

    On one hand, the stimulus-response pattern matching table could be seen as merely a complicated Cartesian organ, or a slight but telling advance in method on Olimpia's single response to nearly all input. On the other hand, as I heard the story, several people were willing to "converse" with ELIZA, even without the benefit of magic glasses. (assuming, that is, that teletypes in the 1960's and telescopes in the 1810's didn't play similar quasi-magical roles in popular imagination…)

  20. Rodger C said,

    April 11, 2019 @ 6:58 am

    telescopes in the 1810's

    Did you mean 1610's?

  21. Dave said,

    April 11, 2019 @ 9:11 am

    I'd meant 1810's, from Der Sandmann, but agree that it seems likely telescopes were far more commonplace by the XIX than teletypes were mid-XX.

    Another interesting question between the XVII and the XIX is that of sound perception: Descartes' given examples are of the automaton being touched, not of it reacting directly to sound. I'd originally thought this distinction reasonable, as Helmholtz was still a few centuries in the future, but Descartes and Mersenne corresponded, and the latter published the «Traité de l'harmonie universelle» which (with the benefit of hindsight?) could have allowed one to dream of analyzing* speech by means of sympathetically vibrating strings…

    * cf
    "Mersenne's description in the 1636 Harmonie universelle of the first absolute determination of the frequency of an audible tone…"

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