A Local Resource

One of the most challenging tasks I had when creating my latest book, The Story of the Robot: A Short History of Automation and Robotics, was finding suitable images that could be used without royalty fees or onerous licensing restrictions. The Internet is a rich source of images on all manner of subjects but the majority of these cannot be used without first obtaining a license unless the copyright has expired or the image has been made available under a public copyright license. You can see evidence of this on many Wikipedia pages, where images are either non-existent or are photographs of questionable quality taken by amateurs and licensed through Creative Commons.

Chapters 2 and 3 of the book were particularly challenging, as the choice of royalty-free images of early factory machinery was very poor. In some cases I was able to find PDF copies of relevant documents where the copyright had long since expired, such as early manuscripts and patent applications, and extract suitable images from them. I also had a few photographs of museum exhibits which I’d taken myself. However, this situation was less than ideal and ended up limiting the number of images included in the book.

Imagine my surprise when, on a recent visit to the National Museum of Scotland here in Edinburgh, I discovered a treasure trove of artefacts from the Industrial Revolution, including many of the items of machinery I had been writing about in the book. I’ve visited this excellent museum on countless occasions over the years but had somehow missed (or forgotten about) the ‘Scotland Transformed’ gallery which takes the visitor through the period during which Scotland began to change from a predominantly rural, medieval society to an urban, modern one. It’s a pity that I hadn’t found it before publishing the book, as I would have been able to include my own photographs of the relevant artefacts (see example above). Of course, this opens up the possibility of a new edition of the book containing a much larger number of images, as originally planned, but I’ll leave it for the time being and see how sales of the first edition progress.


Steady Progress

Boston Dynamics SpotI’ve now completed the first two chapters of my new book and have almost finished the first draft of Chapter 3.  The working title is The Story of the Robot: A Short History of Automation and Robotics.  As the title indicates, this will be a shorter book than The Story of the Computer, with 8 chapters planned instead of 13 and a relatively svelte estimated word count of around 80,000 words in contrast to the massive 235,000 words of my first book.

There are a couple of reasons for this:-

    1. The only real criticism of The Story of the Computer concerned its length which appears to have daunted some readers and scared off at least one potential publisher.  The book had to be long in order to cover the multiple development paths and competing technologies adequately, and would have been even longer if I had not decided to omit planned chapters on supercomputers and portable computing.  Fortunately, the subject of the new book is less convoluted and can be covered in a much more straightforward way.
    2. With over 500 pages of text in The Story of the Computer, I could only include a relatively small number of illustrations otherwise the total number of pages would have become unmanageable.  This was frustrating, as certain sections of the book would have benefitted from the addition of some carefully chosen images.  Having less text in the new book affords me the luxury of including as many illustrations as I like without worrying about the overall number of pages, although it will be a challenge to find sufficient good quality images in a subject area that is much less well represented online than the history of the computer.

Progress with the new book has been steady but slower than I’d have liked (due mainly to a lack of discipline on my part!).  Nevertheless, Chapter 3 should be finished by the end of this month and I’ll aim to increase the pace in the New Year to get back on track for completion of the book before the end of 2021.

The Origins of Simulation

LinkedIn Logo

I’ve recently published a new article on LinkedIn exploring the origins of simulation.  Modern simulation tools and techniques are almost exclusively computer-based but the origins of simulation lie in in the remarkable achievements of two 18th century inventors, Jacques de Vaucanson and Wolfgang von Kempelen.

A longer version of this article will form part of the opening chapter of my new book on the history of automation and robotics.  This chapter will trace the origins of robotics through the development of automata and mechanical toys.  I’m pleased to report that I’ve now completed the first draft of this chapter and have started work on Chapter 2 which will cover the mechanisation of the textiles industry and the advent of the factory system during the Industrial Revolution.

New Book Taking Shape

Boston Dynamics Atlas RobotI’ve recently completed a detailed outline for my second book and am now in the process of writing the opening chapter.  Having completed The Story of the Computer back in 2015, I’ve kept my authorial hand in by penning the occasional article for LinkedIn but haven’t written anything substantial so I’m really enjoying the discipline of writing every day again.

The subject of the new book is the history of automation and robotics.  Unlike the history of the computer, this topic hasn’t been covered very widely by other authors.  There are a handful of books available on the history of the robot but none of these include the development of automation technology and in my opinion it is impossible to separate the two.  A robot is a specific example of automation technology, one which can perform a complex sequence of actions automatically without manual intervention.  Robots which can operate with a high degree of autonomy, so-called autonomous robots, are arguably the highest form of automation technology.  Therefore, in order to cover the history of the robot as comprehensively as possible, it’s necessary to examine it within the wider context of automation.

I’ve been fortunate to work with robots and other forms of automation technology extensively during my career as an R&D engineer so I have a reasonable baseline knowledge from which to start.  Nevertheless, a huge amount of research will be required in order to chart the evolution of this fascinating subject.  Some of this has been completed already during the course of creating the outline of the book but there is still much to do.

Here’s a brief summary of the new book:-

It begins by tracing the origins of automation and robotics through the development of automata and mechanical toys.  The mechanisation of the textiles industry and the advent of the factory system during the Industrial Revolution are then described.  The story continues with the development of automatic control technologies before moving on to factory automation and industrial robots.  The book then focuses on the evolution of anthropomorphic robots before bringing the subject up to date with the development of UAVs, AGVs and Self-Driving Cars.  The final chapter examines the application of digital technologies to manufacturing in what is now being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I’ll keep you posted on progress.