Links We Like: The Prehistory of AI, An Abandoned Ferry Boat with Games, & Forgotten Hand Tools

Duck via

Crossection of Jacques Vaucanson’s “Defecating Duck” automatavia

This week’s Links We Like trace the mechanical prehistory of artificial intelligence, scope out an abandoned ferry boat jam-packed with arcade machines, and peruse the Museum of Old Technology in Belgium.

Thanks for all the feedback from last week’s post, especially the fun discussion about Dwarf Fortress. As always, make sure to share with us the links you’re reading. Have a great weekend! \(•◡•)/

Artificial Intelligence As Luxury and Parlor Trick

Hydraulic Organ with Dancing Skeleton via

Hydraulic Organ with Dancing Skeleton via

Today, we use artificial intelligence (AI) to guide us with turn-by-turn directions, translate text from one language to another, and recommend what products we should spend our money on. Our concept of AI is predominantly software based, yet historically AI was the domain of mechanical engineering.

In Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence, Stanford History professor, Jessica Riskin, surveys the early interests and attempts to create mechanical AI. She traces the historical threads from the ancient Greek’s use of siphons in palace fountains to move water “uphill” to the 16th century innovation of the pegged cylinder, which were used as a type of primitive programming device for musical instruments.

Riskin takes time to focus on some of the more bizarre creations such as Jacques Vaucanson, “defecating duck”. A machine (read duck) that onlookers were instructed to feed with bits of food. A short time later, the duck would extrude a “digested” version of the feed much to the delight of all.

By the 18th century, the preferred problems in automata building shifted to chess playing and speech. It is during this period, in 1769, that Wolfgang von Kempelen built a chess playing automata called The Mechanical Turk. It was said the Turk could beat anyone in chess.

In fact, the mechanization of the Turk only went so far as the arms and head. Kempelen employed a small man, with exceptional chess abilities, to sit inside the Turk and act as the machine’s brain.

Forgotten Treasures in the Hull of an Abandon Ship

February 4, 2012, a group of arcade cabinet collectors boarded the ship Duke of Lancaster. Grounded on the shores of Llanerch-y-Mor, North Wales, since the 1980s, the Duke held a trove of untouched arcade machines waiting for salvage.

Between 1956 and 1979, the Duke ferried passengers throughout the waterways of Europe. In ’79, the vessel was retooled as a “fun ship” and outfitted with such amenities as video game machines. But by 1983 the ship ran into legal issues and was abandoned its by owners with no plans for future use.

The Arcade Blogger’s, Tony Temple recounts the full adventure, and it’s well worth a read. Altogether, over fifty classic cabinets were rescued from the bowels of the Duke.

Museum of Old Technology

As crafts and trades become supplanted by mechanization, we often lose the hand skills and the knowledge of the tools. The Museum of Old Technology is a dream come true for anyone who appreciates old hand tools. Based in Belgium, the museum is a bit of a hike from the Oakland office. Fortunately, the MOT has a website that shows off a ton of its holdings.

Browsing the collection can be done by tool shape, tool name, or the craft that used the tool the most. This catalogue searchability makes it easy to find more obscure tools, like the hammer drill pictured above.

Anyone interested in old hand tools will find Witold Rybczynski’s book One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw fascinating. Somehow nobody knows the origin of the screwdriver! But not to worry, Rybczynski is on the trail!

Have a great weekend, make sure to share any interesting links you find with us in the forums, and while you’re commenting, don’t forget to mention your favorite oldschool tool too.

About the Author

Posted by

I'm busy writing and editing content at Next Thing Co.