When Czech science fiction writer and playwright Karel Čapek used the word robot (its root goes back to a term for “serf labor”), invented by his brother, Josef, he had human-shaped machines in mind that would do man’s bidding, for good or ill.
Today, millions of robots are quietly and industriously going about their business but, alas, few of them look like the classic robot of SF literature or the robots we grew up watching on TV and in the movies. I recall being scared to death of the Tobot character (“robot” spelled backwards) when I watched “Captain Video and his Video Rangers” as a little kid. Robbie the robot in “Forbidden Planet” was a good-natured mechanical man, as was Robot, the combination nanny and straight man on “Lost in Space.”
But instead of humanoid machines mingling in modern society, these days robotic carts deliver parts from storage to machine in factories all over the world; robotic arms help build most kinds of trucks and autos these days; and deep space robots land on distant planets, tool around for years over the surface or dig around a bit and then return their finds to Earth. Robots even mow our lawns and vacuum our living rooms.
In short, robots are replacing people in jobs that are either too dangerous or too costly or too repetitive for humans to perform if industry, government, or ourselves are to be freed up to do other things—or make even bigger profits without all those pesky union contracts to deal with.
On the plus side, machines have made humanity’s physical burden lighter from the time the first cave man found a long enough lever could move a giant boulder. At the same time, those same machines have sometimes caused huge workforce dislocations.
No one knows what the first machine really was. It could have been that rock-moving lever noted above. Or it could have been the inclined plane used to help a group of Paleolithic hunters move the carcass of a large animal up to their cave.
The simple machine that probably had the most impact on the earliest civilizations right up through the present was the wheel, which allowed all manner of things to happen, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. Even as the first crude wagon led to the automobile, the first war chariot led to today’s tanks, effects I am sure the inventor of the wheel could not imagine.
But far from being simply a troublemaker, the wheel has also, over the course of history, been the greatest labor saving device ever invented, and may well have led to the invention of civilization. Wheels allowed larger cargoes to be carried from the countryside to the cities that grew into the Urs, Babylons, Romes, and other great capitals of the ancient world. And something as simple as a wheelbarrow lighten the workload on generation after generation of workers.
When put to work properly and with some innovation, wheels made manufacturing possible on large scales for the first time.
The water wheel was probably invented in the Far East, but it eventually became the foundation on which the West’s Industrial Revolution was built. Once the power of water was harnessed and put to productive work, all manner of things became not only possible but practical.
Gears and pulleys—also wheels—allowed the power of falling or flowing water to turn millstones to grind grain into flour, and to make saw blades first travel up and down and then round and round to saw trees into lumber.
At some time or other, an inventive person invented the trip hammer, a particularly useful machine. A trip hammer is lifted by a cam—basically a bulge—attached to a shaft turned by waterpower. As the bulge of the cam passes, the hammer falls. Of what use is an endlessly rising and falling hammer? Let us count the ways.
In olden times, dye was made from vegetable substances that had to be pulverized, and that pulverization was all done by hand. With a water-powered trip hammer, dye stocks could be made much more cheaply because machines did not get tired and cranky. They just went on pounding and pounding all day every day without complaint. As a result, dye prices fell, and even common folks were able to afford colorful clothing.
Water powered hammers were also useful to folks who wanted to make a lot of metal items. Blacksmithing was an art, and a hard one at that. But trip hammers could be used to automate the tiresome process of hammering larger pieces of steel or iron to flatten or weld or shape them, making workers more productive.
In addition, falling or flowing water could also power all manner of other complicated machine assemblages from textile mills and elaborate looms to irrigation pumps to those sawmill blades mentioned above.
Indeed, when the first settlers began arriving here in Kendall County, pioneer millwrights were among the first wave of settlement in the 1830s. Ebenezer Morgan, John Schneider, Merritt Clark, Levi Gorton and the others found likely sites along the county’s creeks and rivers and built their dams and mills.
Gristmills were usually the first mills to be built to allow farmers to grind their com, barley, oats, and wheat into flour. But sawmills were almost as quickly built, and lumber for homes for the county’s growing population was soon available.
All manner of water-powered factories followed, and even the water behind the numerous mill dams itself was soon sold in the form of ice, harvested during the winter and stored for sale later in the warm months of the year.
The steam engine—which also relies on wheels to operate—gradually put the county’s water-powered mills out of business, since steam engines require no expensive, maintenance-intensive dams, they aren’t affected by low or high water levels, and they don’t freeze up in the winter.
Besides revolutionizing milling, steam engines installed aboard boats opened the Midwest’s extensive river system to trade, while other steam engines equipped with wheels and pulling cars over a network of rails changed the nation forever by revolutionizing transportation.
Today, we are facing another revolution almost as great as the one occasioned by the invention of the wheel. The combination of powerful computers and a worldwide communications network is bringing people together as nothing else ever has. The old totalitarian nations were unable to stand against the communications revolution as fax machines and computer networks spread the truths they had been suppressing for generations.
Now, however, the social media that toppled dictators is being used more and more to promote new dictatorial and hateful propaganda to a credulous citizenry. As we face the same messy ethnic and territorial problems the world has been dealing with since civilizations arose, our immediate challenge is trying to figure out how to use all this new technology in the service of rights and freedom of civilization before it destroys both.