Camden County College Speaker Series: Medieval Robots in Islamdom

Elly Truitt
Oct 19, 2022 at | William G. Rohrer Center, 1889 Route 70 East, Cherry Hill NJ 08003


The art and science of making robots flourished across Islamdom from the eighth century onward. This talk will explore the engineering and context behind elaborate water clocks, programmable fountains, musical instruments and mechanical servants found in mosques and palaces from Cordoba to Cairo, Palermo to Baghdad.

Elly R. Truitt joined Penn in 2020 as an associate professor in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science, where she studies the circulation of scientific objects and natural knowledge throughout central and western Eurasia and north Africa, in the medieval period. She has a particular interest in how scientific ideas, practices, and objects traveled and were adapted to new settings, and philosophical treatises, archival material, literary texts, lyric, material objects, and images all inform her work. Her first book, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art (Penn, 2015), explored the history of automata in medieval Latin culture, where they appeared as gifts from foreign rulers in Baghdad and Damascus and at the courts of Constantinople and Shengdu, and demonstrated that artificial people and animals were ubiquitous in medieval culture, and that they were used to pose questions about identity, liveliness, and the ethics of knowledge and creation. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Huntington Library, the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, and other institutions. She has published articles on the history of automata, the history of timekeeping technology, pharmacobotany, the adoption of Arabic terms and ideas into Latin and English scientific texts, and on concepts of artificial intelligence in the Middle Ages.