1957 – Machina Versatilis – Ivan Sutherland (American)

Ivan Sutherland with M. Versatilis.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University Archives

Machina Versatilis , pictured above and below, was so named due to the versatile modular plug-in boards. M. Versatilis was the final of three models built, and at least two of this model were supposedly built. The first version, see blog post here, was originally built in Spring 1956 by Ivan Sutherland's older brother Bert (William Robert Sutherland) and his then class room-mate Malcolm "Mac" G. Mugglin.

That model had shortcomings and was abandond. Later that year, Ivan took charge of the project and produced a second model. This model used a cast aluminium plate, easily removeable wet battery, and plastic bumpers. It still utilised vacuum tubes [valves] at this time. The third and final model was primarily built by Ivan in September 1957,  was fully transistorised and used only dry-cell batteries. 

To my knowledge, although Grey Walter had said he had built a transistorised tortoise in a letter dated Jan 1957, this is the first cybernetic animal to utilise transistors that we have proof of.

Another first was that a second M. Versatilis was built along with a light mounted on a rolling platform to be pushed around as a toy. Ivan later describes his idea on improving M. Versatilis even further with a direction-guiding gyroscope to enable a game of soccer to be played.  This effectively is the first ever mention of the concept now known as robo-soccer.

The pdf below, along with the letters published here give a good all round description of M. Versatilis.

There is a video clip featuring the Sutherland brothers giving a talk on their lives. There's a brief mention of the robots about 19 minutes into the clip titled "mom loved him best" https://www.youtube.com/sM1bNR4DmhU .

Electro-Mechanical-Animal Sutherland-  a pdf of the below article

Although thought to have been #6, the stamping clearly shows a '5', contradicting WGW's and Sutherland's correspondence.





Documents showing schematics of plug-in modules.

There are not many references to Machina Versatilis. Unfortunately one of the more recent tomes on the history of A.I. (Boden: Mind as Machine) incorrectly credits the Sutherlands' as the builders of Edmund C. Berkeley's "Squee" of 1951, rather than M. Versatilis.

See other Cybernetic Creatures here.

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