If you were to go looking for the world's first mechanical humanoid, you'd have to go all the back to ancient Greek mythology.
His name? Talos, the man of bronze.
Talos, as Joe McCormick and I discuss on this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, emerged from the tales of Jason and his Argonauts – a band of heroes that in some ways stands as a proto-superhero team. When our heroes reached the island of Crete, they encountered a bronze automaton created in the likeness of a man. There, the great protector stalked the shores, hurling rocks at unidentified sea vessels and embracing any enemy brave enough to land in an immolating red-hot bear hug.
The origin of Talos varies. Some accounts describe him as the last survivor of an ancient race of bronze men, but the more popular versions attribute his creation to Hephaestus, god of the forge. Later tellings even cast him as the work of Daedalus, the mythic inventor of the Minoan maze and the wings of Icarus.
Wherever he came from, his appearance in Greek myth mostly revolves around his demise. Ancient spoiler alert: Jason and the Argonauts were able to overcome the bronze man (described variously as a giant or a human-sized entity) only with the aid of the sorceress Medea. With magic and deception, she pulled a bronze nail from Talos' heel and drained the vital ichor fluid (or blood of the gods) from its body, reducing the mighty guardian to a heap of lifeless metal.
But as we discuss on the podcast, Talos is far more than a mere curio amid other tales of gods and heroes. While myths can reveal much about history and culture, this episode also concerns the nature of technology.
On one hand, Talos stands as a potential metaphor for the might of bronze technology during the Greek Bronze Age, stretching from 3200 to 1200 B.C.E. In its towering stature, we see the elite nature of bronze craftsmanship at the time, as well as the military prowess of bronze weaponry. It was an age of peak bronze technology. The might of nations depended upon this durable alloy.
All ages come to an end, however, and historians believe that the invaders who attacked Greece from the north around 1200 B.C.E. used iron weapons. So it's possible that this is a tale of the transition from bronze to iron, with Talos' destruction symbolizing the end of bronze superiority.
Talos is something special, even to modern humans. He's the embodiment of technological achievement and divine power intertwined in a single mythic being. And, as classics professor Merlin Peris pointed out in his 1971 paper discussing the "Abominable Bronze Man":
This killer robot stares back at us from the mists of ancient human civilization, reflecting the attitudes of its time but also challenging us to consider the ramifications of artistic and technological creation. What are the limits of the modern Talos' might? How terrible is its embrace?
Despite the never-ending onslaught of sci-fi killer robots, these questions remain as enthralling as ever.