Archive for March, 2007



Da Vinci Automata got BoingBoinged!

I just checked my e-mail after a couple of days and just found out that Da Vinci Automata was BoingBoinged. The hits on blog skyrocketted. I would like to take this opportunity to ask the visitors to submit any references, resources or links that they are familiar with. Also if you have any stories etc to submit please feel free to do so. Clockpunk is a relatively new genre, any contributions would be more than welcome.

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Wooden Clockpunk Pocketwatch


Although this was not constructed as an example of Clockpunk but it is nonetheless a good example of Clockpunk. The Clock was constructed in 1900 in Russia and is made entirely of wood. Consider the excerpt from the Watchismo blog (found via BoingBoing).

The case, the hands, and the gears, all from a tree – a living material that also marks time with it’s rings – natures own clock and a profound medium for a watch.

Clockpunk Difference Engine

One of the unexplored ideas (as far as I know) in Clockpunk is the absence of a Clockwork Difference Engine. Given that people in Greece as far back as the first century B.C had the technology to build devices like the Antikythera Mechanism, the possibility of an earlier Difference Engine exists. Imagine a difference engine build by the great master himself – Leonardo’s Difference Engine. I may be writing a short story on it soon, so stay tuned.

Al-Jazari and the First Programmable Humanoid Robot

Before Da Vinci there was Al-Jazari – the Engineering genius of the Islamic world in the Middle Ages. He designed and built a number of automatas including the first programmable humanoid robot. He is also invented the Crank-shank. Here is a page (now offline) on the reconstruction of Al-Jazari’s automata.

A 13th Century Programmable Robot

A team from the USA history channel were on campus last month in the Faculty of Engineering to talk about some very old robots. They were there to film a replica of the mechanism for al-Jazari’s drinking boat; a boat full of musical automata first constructed in 1206. Professor Noel Sharkey from Computer Science built the core of the device –”bodged it together from a pile of rubbish”, he says – to demonstrate how it could have been programmed. The previous claim for the world’s oldest programmable automata is for a machine built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1478.

Al-Jazari’s machine was originally a boat with four automatic musicians that floated on a lake to entertain guests at royal drinking parties. It had two drummers, a harpist and a flautist. Professor Sharkey’s machine has just the one drummer with a drum, cymbals, bells and no body. The flautist is replaced with an Irish penny whistle. He says he wouldn’t risk taking this to any drinking parties round here.

The heart of the mechanism is a rotating cylindrical beam with pegs (cams) protruding from it. These just bump into little levers that operate the percussion. The point of the model is to demonstrate that the drummer can be made to play different rhythms and different drum patterns if the pegs are moved around. In other words it is a programmable drum machine.

“Whether or not al-Jazari dynamically programmed his machines is an intriguing question”, he says, “it is quite likely that he used this method, at the very least, for fine tuning the rhythm of the musicians”.

Professor Sharkey is currently looking at a much older mobile automaton device by Heron of Alexandria, 1st Century AD, which he now suspects may also have been programmable.

The TV programme, The Ancient Robots, will air in the USA in early 2007.

Pasquale’s Angel

Pasquale’s Angel by Paul J. McAuley is set in an alternative Renaissance where Leonardo da Vinci, known as the Great Engineer in the novel, concentrates his efforts more on his inventions than his art with the result that he almost single handedly launches the industrial revolution a few hundred years earlier than it happened. Almost overnight what would have been the great artists of the Renaissance are are overshadowed by the new inventions. The novel is a murder mystery where someone in Raphael’s household is killed and the protagonist Pasquale gets involved in the investigation along with Machiavelli who is a journalist in Florence! It should be noted that Pasquale’s Angel is also the recipient of the Philip K. Dick award in Science Fiction.

Introducing Clockpunk

Clockpunk is a genre of science fiction similar to Steampunk (some people even consider clockpunk to be a sub-genre of Steampunk). Clockpunk can be divided into historical and non-historical Clockpunk. Historical Clockpunk explores how the world would have turned out if certain technological developments that occurred later had happened in the Renaissance and or certain inventions in the time of the Renaissance were created on a mass scale in the time period.Non-historical Clockpunk is set in settings similar to the Renaissance but on alternative worlds, planets etc. The suffix punk is actually misleading but the name has stuck just as it has stuck in the case of other sub-genres of science fiction that were inspired from Steampunk. While there is sometimes overlap between Clockpunk and the fantasy genre, for the purpose of the current blog we shall try to keep these overlaps separate.


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Knowing and Doing

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“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” - Leonardo Da Vinci
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