The bumpy road to a walking robot

Antonia Malchik
5 min readAug 31, 2022

The history of bipedal robots is bedeviled by the complexity of human locomotion

A white, smooth-looking robot with its face “looking” up toward the viewer.
Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

In 2013 a bipedal robot named MARLO walked several stiff steps across an engineering department lab at the University of Michigan. After stopping the robot from careening into a wall, one of its creators pumped his fist and said, “Yes!” with a grin that on its own shouted excitement.

MARLO couldn’t step over obstacles, couldn’t stop itself from walking into a door, and stumbled badly while walking outside, but still, MARLO was officially the first robot to walk, without a stabilizing rod, like a human on its own two legs.

Engineers have been attempting to build a bipedal robot like MARLO since the 1950s. Efforts to build humanoid automata, though, have been around much longer, starting at least at least as early as 250 BCE. Traces of designs, or in some cases simply stories related to these devices have trickled out of the early histories of India, Greece, China, and Egypt.

Most of these devices were created for entertainment: tiny figures that danced through intricate clocks, or props that could be used on the stage. The Greeks used them for drama and delight. Practical applications came later, out of the Arab world, most notably in the thirteenth century with the publication of polymath Ismail al-Jazari The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices.

Work like al-Jazari’s deeply influenced inventors like Leonardo da Vinci. Drawing on these advances, and reaching back to even earlier Greek inventions, da Vinci used his varied background in anatomy, tool making, sculpture, and engineering to build what’s considered to be the world’s first human-like robot. Da Vinci’s invention, dressed in a suit of armor, was designed to wave its arms and move its head via cables operated by a human, but it could not walk.

The following centuries saw experiments in making humanoid machines by Swiss watchmakers and Russian mathematicians; but the most robot-like bipedal machine, designed in 1893 and mobilized using a gas-powered boiler, came from Canadian professor George Moore. His “Steam Man” looked like a medieval knight and seems to have been built for no purpose at all, although designs that never got built indicated an intention for a larger version that could pull…

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Antonia Malchik

Antonia Malchik is the author of A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time; walking, tech, community, and embodiment.