Meet Diego – The Robotic Monk Built in the Middle Ages

While reading Mental Floss, yesterday, I read about some famous automatons (robots from the old days) and learned about a very impressive 16th century creation – a robotic monk that walked around the Spanish royal palace saying prayers!

It’s hard to believe that someone could have made something so sophisticated in 1500s, but by this time clocks already had “second” hands and were working with respectable precision.  These late medieval automaton designes seemed to come from Leonardo da Vinci (who had nothing to do with Mary Magdalene, but I digress), who had blueprints for robotic soldiers that were never built (until modern times – that’s the thing over to the right). Of course, there were much older automatons, but the design was never as sophisticated as it was after the medieval clock makers took up the craft.

According to the story, Phillip II (who served as the king of Spain, England, Portugal, Ireland, parts of Italy, and serve as the Holy Roman Emperor – all at the same time) asked Saint Diego for a miraculous healing for one of his friends.  The friend recovered, and Phillip II had renowned clockmaker Juanelo Turriano come to Toledo and build an robotic version of Saint Diego for his palace.  Since Turriano had already made an automaton that could play music, this one wasn’t too much of a stretch.

 BoingBoing posted this x-ray of the robot’s head.  My last x-ray wasn’t much different.

The little robot is about 15 inches tall.  The owner winds him with a key that sticks into its back, and then the monk takes off, wandering around in circles in an imitation of a monk praying.  He raises a cross in the air, kisses it, taps his chest, and walks forward with his rosary held aloft.  He will go through his actions seven times before being wound down.  It’s almost beautiful to see this robot goig through the motions of a monk in meditation.  Unfortunately, it’s not that pretty, because his face looks really creepy and even the designer said it was “unpleasant.”  But it’s still an impressive piece of engineering.

Watch the video (there’s no audio to it); you won’t believe this thing was made 500 years ago.

Of course, there are more automatons that might be more technically impressive. For example, the duck who digests food, or the other bird-inspired automatons that actually flew. But this one’s my favorite.

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