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A Clockwork Miracle

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - 08:00 PM

Monkbot Monkbot (Rosamond Purcell)

In 1562, King Philip II needed a miracle. So he commissioned one from a highly-skilled clockmaker. In this short, a king's deal with God leads to an intricate mechanical creation, and Jad heads to the Smithsonian to investigate. 

When the 17-year-old crown prince of Spain, Don Carlos, fell down a set of stairs in 1562, he threw his whole country into a state of uncertainty about the future. Especially his father, King Philip II, who despite being the most powerful man in the world, was helpless in the face of his heir's terrible head wound.

Contributor Latif Nasser, a graduate student in the History of Science Department at Harvard, explains that when none of the leading remedies of the day--bleeding, blistering, purging, or drilling--helped, the king enlisted the help of a relic...the corpse of a local holy man who had died 100 years earlier. Then, Philip II promised that if God saved his son, he'd repay him with a miracle of his own.

Elizabeth King, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, describes how--according to legend--Philip II held up his end of the bargain with the help of a renowned clockmaker and an intricate invention. Jad and Latif head to the Smithsonian to meet curator Carlene E. Stephens, who shows them the inner workings of a nearly 450-year-old monkbot. 

Public Domain/Wikipedia Commons
Portrait of Don Carlos by Alonso Sánchez Coello, 1558
Courtesy of Rosamond Purcell
Portrait of an automaton
Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
The bot in full monk's costume
Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Rear veiw, unrobed
Monkbot Feet Smithsonian
Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
The feet and lower mechanism
Monkbot Internal Smithsonian
Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
Inside the bot
Liz and David and Kazuo 1999
Murakami Kazuo
Liz and David Todd work on the model, 1999
W. David Todd
From David's sketches: mechanism for the eyes and jaw
Components of the internal mechanism of the monk. Parts for foot stepping motion, and left arm movement
W. David Todd
From David's sketches: arts for foot stepping motion, and left arm movement
Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History
The completed model
Translucent Monkbot Head
Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History


Elizabeth King, Latif Nasser and Carlene Stephens


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Comments [59]

It's stupid that they talk about a "miracle" like it really happened.

Jul. 07 2015 11:05 AM
Agatha B. Silverstein from Florida

It's crazy to think the injury of a Spanish heir caused the creation of one of the world's oldest robots. Philip the second of Spain was desperate for his son to heal and promised God if he would save his son then Philip would perform a miracle for God. After his son was healed he had this automaton of a priest created as a person to pray for him for whatever the purpose maybe continually without stop until the prayer wanted to pray for something else.

Jan. 19 2015 09:10 PM
Jennifer from St Paul

Re belief, all I could think of is a book I'm reading, Timeless Healing, the Power and Biology of Belief, by a Harvard guy at Mass General now I think. I also always think of Novena, which my grandmother always touted to me as her own power. So interesting, all of this.

I looked this up to see the story again, to read what they'd said about his injury, and the recounting of his awakening and telling of what he'd "seen" while unconscious. I would love to see a transcription of their stories on Radio Lab's sites. I usually am dying to re-live hearing / reading them after I hear them, almost every one.

Please add that transcription if possible, Radio Lab! Thanks, I love the show, so far every one of them. :)

Sep. 21 2013 04:01 PM

Sep. 21 2013 03:00 PM

Check the amazing video of this podcast.

Aug. 10 2013 05:47 AM

i really want to know what the music is at 4:12. if anyone knows what that is that be great

Jul. 07 2013 08:09 AM
Justin from Tampa, FL

I love RadioLab, but I was very saddened to hear Jad called the other guy an idiot for asking the question if this was the first robot that we know of. No need for name calling Jad!

Jun. 20 2013 02:36 PM

I don't see how anyone can find the tenor of this episode to be offensively *religious*. The condescending comments about Catholic saints, relics, and prayers, and concomitant mocking laughter, were insulting and disappointing. This story covered a fascinating part of history, but the piece lost much of its worth because of the hosts' ungracious handling of a belief system not their own, particularly when they ended the piece by smugly comparing Catholics to automatons.

As others have noted, Catholic prayers are not all ritual. However, the rituals of Catholicism are quite beautiful and meaningful, and serve a profound spiritual and cultural purpose. If they don't understand or believe in the value of those prayers, it seems arrogant to mock the people to whom these things have importance and meaning. Will RadioLab do an insulting segment next on Buddhist monks, or Orthodox Jews? I sincerely hope not.

Oct. 11 2012 09:30 PM
luv2ski from nv

I found this an amazing story. The wonders (or lack of) of medicine eons ago, and the meticulousness of the Monkbot. Just amazing what we can do. As for this particular episode being religious, I don't think so. Just interesting.

Jul. 06 2012 02:11 PM
DCC from Indiana

The broadcast omits the last episode of the story. Spending the night with the corpse of the saint did not cure Don Carlo. A week later the anatomist Anders Vesalius directed an operation to drain pus from the wound, a month later bone fragments were removed from the wound, and the prince was finally restored to health. This successful treatment of osteomyelitis of the skull is one of the bright episodes in of history of medicine.

Jul. 01 2012 06:26 PM
Bruce Ramsey from Sacramento

The miracle isn't this robot, but, the 16th Century mind that was able to think it up.

Jun. 30 2012 05:26 PM
Gina Maiellaro from Boston

I liked very much this episode, as all the others Radiolab produces! I have just a quick comment about the automaton and the prayer. The last speculation about the reason why the monk had been commissioned by the king, was that it had probably a teaching function (Counter Reformation has been also mentioned!); briefly to show people how to pray. There is no doubt that, especially in certain historical moments, prayer has become a form of automatic communication with God (this is true of many other religions, prayer is a ritual). Given the movement of the automaton (walking, looking at different sides, etc.) I am not sure we can conclude it is showing how to properly pray. Catholics do not pray walking and looking at people, except during formal processions. The "mea culpa" it is reciting, is something you would expect a monk to do, a way of identifying him.
Speculations about Catholic dogma should be done if you know about it and should be based on solid foundations (I am sure grad students know that). This is what science teaches us, isn't it?
Thanks to Radiolab ... your show is always great.

Jun. 07 2012 10:48 AM
hapdo from earth

it is great informatons thnks

Feb. 23 2012 08:53 PM
Geir Sjurseth from Stockholm, Sweden.

I thoroughly enjoyed this episode as I do all episodes... I too am a staunch atheist and also would not be inclined to keep listening if I felt there were religious overtones....

I only find one post questioning whether radiolab is becoming more and more religious (which I haven't noticed, btw). Then there are loads of posts, like mine frankly, denying it. It doesn't seem to me like there is even a debate: just one single post and then many posts disavowing it.

Nov. 12 2011 02:27 PM
Mike White from Westland, MI

I was reminded of the Mechanical Turk while listening to this.

Oct. 26 2011 09:54 PM
Nate F

I just listened to this podcast, so I realize I'm a bit late to the party, but this entire debate about the religiousness of the episode is ridiculous, because Religion is one of the most powerful influences in the history of mankind. No search for Truth can ignore Religion.

Even if there are no supernatural forces that have an effect on the observable natural world, the BELIEF in such forces does have a real effect on countless aspects of the Human Story. That places religious beliefs of all kinds squarely in the circle of scientific curiosity.

Sep. 03 2011 08:39 AM

Given that ever since the first century a.d. "Christians" have been big into using physical imagery in their worship, like the cross, and statues of the impaled Jesus and statues of "saints" (all of which would qualify as idols and idolatry) rather than focusing on a true spiritual relationship with their creator, I would say that a good explanation for this mechanical monk is that king Philip wanted to create the first "living idol" to trump all of the stationary and lifeless idols that preceded it.

Aug. 17 2011 02:19 AM
Esma VonDay from Salt Lake City

I think Juanelo Turriano is God.

Jul. 18 2011 05:42 PM

This is only the second Radiolab I've listened to. I think they're amazing.

I'm an atheist. Religion exists, why would anyone be against a podcast that mentioned religion?

This was definitely a secular podcast with a religious theme. The host sounded more like they were mocking religion when they were talking about how the king must have felt when he got better.

Jul. 17 2011 10:17 AM
Kimee from Malden, MA

This sounds a lot like Father Power in Malden, MA. Father power was a 25 year old priest who had healing powers & even now, at his grave lots of people hold service by his grave & are healed. Come to Malden. Seriously.

Jul. 15 2011 03:27 PM
Arias Montano from El Escorial

I just don't get how people think this is about religion. It's a typical story in Philip II's strategy to find engineering and scientific solutions to terrestrial problems. Philip II's contributions to proto-chemistry (he had the most advanced spagyric laboratory ever built), natural history (laying the groundwork for the primary philological undertaking of the Lincei), and cartography were as decisive as anyone of his era. His work was carried on by the emperor he educated, Rudolph II. There's a fair amount of speculation that Philip was actually a member of the Familia Caritatis (whether that's true or not isn't as important as the existence of the speculation). In short, it's not really a religious story if you look into it.
Turriano is sold short if you call him a watchmaker, however. He made his fame as an engineer, designing public works in Toledo that were the primary source of his fame. He also built other automata for Philip's father, Charles V.

Jul. 14 2011 08:14 PM

This reminded me of an episode of Futurama. :)

Jul. 08 2011 02:28 PM

The thing is so small... how do you make it perform such complex tasks? I mean, gears can only get so small. What I really find cool is not only did the clockmaker make the figurine move with such semi-lifelike movements, but he performed a sequence of actions. How can you program that into a space so small with the technology of the day? That monk really was a miracle.

Jul. 04 2011 11:37 PM

The thought that popped into my head as I was listening to the description of this mechanical monk is what constitutes a robot vs. doll, since to me it sounded more like a doll. But I think that points to the evolving perception of robot with different time periods (probably parallel with engineering advancements we have made). What is a robot? And perhaps we attribute romantic ideas when we use the word 'robot', even prior to knowing the device in question. Would love to hear about the robots made by the Ancient Greeks! Thanks Radiolab!

Jul. 02 2011 09:53 AM
Artful Lodger from Outer edge of the Milky Way

This proves that God loves robots too!

Jul. 01 2011 12:10 PM
Jim Thomas from Boston, MA

Why are people saying that "Religion turns them off"? Isn't that a little extreme? Look, religion dosn't make people fight and kill each other. PEOPLE do. PEOPLE misinterpret the teachings of a religion, and it causes problems.

It's not just religion either. People fight over human rights and morals, and other things that Atheists believe in. We fought against the Nazis because we knew that they were killing innocent people. This is a moral, and human issue, in other words, not a religious issue.

Also, technically Atheism is a religion. By definition I mean. Religion dosn't necessarily have to do with a higher, supernatural power. Buddhism is an example of this. A religion is a large group of people who believe in a common thing. In Atheists case, Humans. Atheists even have holidays! Look up Humanlight, the Atheist version of Christmas.

This is why I'm Agnostic XD

P.S. Radio Lab is a great program. I'm 15 and I listen to it every day!

Jun. 29 2011 11:08 PM
Sadi from australia

.This episode was just nonsense.

Jun. 29 2011 11:02 PM

"The perfect Catholic" wow that was deep.

Jun. 29 2011 01:56 PM

Elizabeth King provides a more detailed history, photographs of the robomonk, how the object was attributed, etc., in this fascinating article:

Jun. 27 2011 08:44 AM

according to,_Prince_of_Asturias
it wasn't a very happy ending for Don Carlos, just six years later:

Carlos was born at Valladolid, and his mother died a month after his birth. The young Infante Carlos was delicate and deformed. He grew up proud and willful and, as a young adult, began to show signs of mental instability. Many of his physical and psychological afflictions may have stemmed from the inbreeding common to the House of Habsburg and the royal houses of Portugal and Spain.
In 1562 Carlos fell down a flight of stairs, which caused serious head injuries. His life was saved by a trepanation of the skull, performed by the eminent anatomist Andreas Vesalius.[3] After his recovery, Carlos became wild and unpredictable in his behavior. He took a dislike to the Duke of Alba, who became the commander of Philip's forces in the Netherlands, a position that had been promised to Carlos. Carlos possibly made contacts with representative of the Count Egmont from the Low Countries, who was leading the revolt against the Spanish. He also exhibited an antipathy towards his father, whose murder, according to Carlos' confessor, he supposedly contemplated at one time.[4] In the autumn of 1567 he made preparations to flee to the Netherlands.[4] However, Don Juan de Austria revealed these plans to King Philip.
In January 1568 Don Carlos was arrested and placed in solitary confinement on his father's orders. He died in isolation six months later.[5] It was later claimed that he was poisoned on the orders of King Philip, especially by William the Silent in his Apology, a 1581 propaganda work against the Spanish king.[6] Modern historians think that Don Carlos died of natural causes. He grew very thin and developed eating disorders during his imprisonment, alternating self-starvation with heavy binges.[7]

Jun. 27 2011 08:27 AM
Zea from Norway

This is amazing. How can you not be in awe when you see this 450 year old robot? Incredible!

Jun. 24 2011 04:22 PM

To all those wonderning about which smithsonian museum the monk is in:

I think it is American History (as the youtube video says) because the curator, Carlene E. Stephens, who Jad spoke with is the curator in the Division of Work and Labor at NMAH.

Jun. 24 2011 09:31 AM

Video just as described in the podcast...

Jun. 23 2011 05:01 PM
j Ro

Your kidding me. No video or way to see it in action? Not even a URL or official name so one could look it up?

Jun. 23 2011 01:24 PM
Mason from Huntington Beach

Where's a video of the monk moving, the robot of course. I'm dying to see the monk in action.

Jun. 22 2011 01:33 PM
Fero Kollar from Sydney, Australia

This podcast was not religious. It merely told a story and described the setting in which the monk-bot came about. I would expect most people to be surprised that such a device was fabricated over 400 yrs ago. The human mind is capable of so much, even when driven by needs and desires founded on questionable beliefs.

Jun. 21 2011 10:46 PM
carrie from Washington, DC

I am also curious- which Smithsonian museum is the monk in? I live in DC and would love to see the little guy.

The YouTube video an earlier poster linked to says it's in the American History museum, but a cursory search of the website returned no hits. The museum and which exhibition within it (the Smithsonian collections are vast!) would be enormously helpful!

Thank you!

Jun. 21 2011 09:31 PM
ShannanN from Mandan, ND

I loved this podcast. I am a Catholic and I had to chuckle at the interpretations of Martin Luther's believes vs. the Catholic Church's believes as "rituals, rituals, rituals". This is a great podcast but Catholicism is about "truths" if nothing else. These truths are found in the lives of our Blessed Saints whose lives we can cover, learn, and follow. A great way to shed a little bit of light on Catholic Saints in this podcast. Perhaps some people become a bit unnerved seeing how Christianity and Catholicism is all around our world whether you are believing in it or not.

Jun. 21 2011 08:46 PM

I am about as atheistic as they come -any trace of a slant towards religion, and I'm turned off. That said, I have never experienced an episode of Radiolab that made me want to stop listening due to some kind of religious bias. The claim that the program is pushing towards religious pseudo-science is a disregard for the themes of inquiry, wonder, and the astounding nature of truth that makes this show so wonderful. It challenges assumptions, questions everything, and opens up the listener's mind to new possibilities. Can there be religious topics in a show like that? Of course. -Although nothing about this episode was telling you to believe King Philip's story, or attempting to lend credibility to it. Nor was a supernatural belief required to allow Jad and Robert spark your curiosity.

Jun. 21 2011 01:37 PM
Marcus Goodyear from Kerrville, TX

I propose a new Turing Test. A priest takes confession from a person on one side and a robot monk on the other...

Jun. 17 2011 05:32 PM
Thomas Hulse from Providence, RI

This story feels curiously evocative of Douglas Adams's "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", which featured a character known as the Electronic Monk. Essentially, it was a devout android:

"The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe."

The notion of a clockwork monk that prays for you seems very much in line with this.

Jun. 17 2011 12:50 PM
Geekoid from Portland, Or

Great podcast. Something struck me: The story is a great examples of management in IT.

Manger makes promise, in this case to God, in exchange for getting something. When they got it, they turned to the engineer and said 'Make me a miracle for God'. Then when the engineer accomplished this amazing feat, the King took credit for it.

I also wonder if the Clock maker had Aspergers.

Jun. 17 2011 10:29 AM


Jun. 16 2011 07:12 PM
pberkbigler from Lincoln, Nebraska

Just found a slightly higher quality video of the monkbot in motion at this link on YouTube:

Jun. 16 2011 12:01 PM
mark from bay village, ohio

talking about religion or spirituality and its effects on the human mind or society and preaching religion are obviously two different things. i don't think anyone could find a part of a single radiolab episode that is sincerely preachy or even leans that way. in what way is this story not just about how amazing the HUMAN mind is, and not some kind of supernatural being's mind.

the whole point of this episode was: look how a person in 1562 could create something that looks and feels almost like a real human being using little more than gears and pulleys and springs. and, it asks you implicitly to think about how it must've blown people's minds back then by how friggin cool this is.

anyone who is afraid of the "out there" or "spiritual" aspects of these podcasts that come up from time to time is less a scientist and more a religo-phobe, in a way that is as boring and antiquated as fundamentalism. every great scientist has enormous respect for the vast mystery of this creation, regardless of whether or not they believe it had a creator.

i feel like those who listen to this show and complain about it not being "scientific" enough expect something like people reading articles out loud. no one would do science in the first place if there was no wonder about this mystery right here in front of us, so let radiolab be whatever they want to be - as this american life did (and continues to do) they've proven that radio is still a viable medium for telling a gripping story that is also enlightening.

also, i feel that people who complain about the sound effects are probably not musicians or music-appreciators and don't see that they put them in their to aid your understanding in the way that video effects are used on TV. it's their version of "show, don't tell." do we really need YET ANOTHER NPR show where people just talk at one another back and forrr....zzzzzz....zzzzz

in short, radiolab is revolutionary.

Jun. 16 2011 11:24 AM
Shannon from Birmingham AL

Radiolab: can we please have a good quality video of the automaton in motion? Also, which museum at the Smithsonian can the little monk be found in?

Jun. 16 2011 11:21 AM
Chris from Boston, MA

There is a difference between the show having a proselytizing message and the story's people or subjects having religious motivations. Jad and Robert have certainly butted heads on their spiritual beliefs before and shown that both the show does not support one particular blief and Jad and Robert don't necessarily subscribe fully to one set of beliefs.

Jun. 16 2011 09:11 AM

Radiolab continues to mix facts to alchemize an illuminating and ongoing investigation. What appears unscientific (praying automatons) and what appears to be a reduction of something unscientific ((Catholic) prayer) touches on the questions at the fringes. There is not one episode that definitely answers these types of questions and that's part of what makes Radiolab so engaging.

By way of engagement: for an automated relic to perform indulgence-like duties is not unlike legitimate forms of Catholic prayer, nor is "prayer at a remove" foreign to other religions such as Shinto. Many believe prayer is like being in a family--you have to show up--but if prayer is "absolutely unmixed attention" (Simone Weil) than the conception of the automaton seems to qualify. Moreover, it is easy enough to say that the automaton lacks any sense of prayer because its motions lack the feeling of attentive gratitude, but it is precisely the repetition of holy motions in an uncanny (and unhuman) way that makes the automaton a miracle by standards dating back to ancient Egypt. Like the episode itself, the robotic padre is a sign of wonder, and we can continue to wonder what it has to say about our view of miracles, our approach to machines and precision, and our experience of prayer.

"...this title [then Clock Oranges] would be appropriate for a story about the application of Pavlovian or mechanical laws to an organism which, like a fruit, was capable of colour and sweetness." --Anthony Burgess

Miracle--"the Greek words rendered as miracle in the English bibles were semeion "sign," teras "wonder," and dynamis "power"" (

Indulgence--"(Christianity / Roman Catholic Church) RC Church to designate as providing indulgence [e.g.] indulgenced prayers" --Collins English dictionary

Thomas Aquinas (from Volume V of Summa Theologica):
“Grace affords a better remedy for avoidance of sin than does habituation to (good) works. And since he who gains an indulgence is dispose to grace through the love which he conceives from the cause for which the indulgence is granted, it follows that indulgences provide a remedy against sin.” And later: “indulgences derive their efficacy from the application of the saints merits to an individual”

Jun. 16 2011 06:04 AM
Lou Newton from Chicago

I don’t think that its fair that everyone is bashing the religious connotation of this story. The notions of religious overtones pertain to the story itself. It would be impossible to even tell the story without it. The idea of why the robot was even created and the actions of the creation are directly tied to the ideal itself. This was not a production to drive anyone to a higher calling... just good story telling.

Jun. 16 2011 05:28 AM

For me this podcast is about history of science, not something strongly religious... well, when you want to talk about something from 16th century Spain, it's impossible to skip the influence or existence of Christianity.

Jun. 16 2011 02:17 AM
Alex Steinberg from Boulder

::SIGH:: When did radio-lab become radio-chapel? This podcast is trending in a very credulous and unscientific way. More like this and I'm going to find it hard to continue supporting it.

Jun. 16 2011 12:57 AM
CD from Boulder, Co

It was interesting to also see the youtube video. If you realize that the designer has particular tools for making certain motions according to certain timing, the clockwork mechanics of making this bot work is really a type of programming.

Jun. 16 2011 12:00 AM
E. R. Truitt

I've posted a link to this podcast and some thoughts of my own about this topic on my blog:

My research is on medieval robots and automata, so I was very excited about this podcast!

Jun. 15 2011 10:32 PM
Chad Toney from Kansas City, MO

I enjoyed the topic, but was disappointed by the uninformed theological speculations. You really think the pinnacle of Catholic prayer is heartless automation?

Jun. 15 2011 03:54 PM
josh from Los Angeles, CA

Also here on you tube, but no sound:

Jun. 15 2011 03:14 PM
J Reilly from Bellmore, NY

Since you guys are so robot-crazy lately, why don't you look into the Cooper-Mini giant- robot myth. You must have heard about it.

Jun. 15 2011 02:46 PM

@Taupo - Religion plays an enormous role in the history of scientific advancements. By ignoring any topics related to religion, you can never truly appreciate the beauty of the world through the objective lens of science.

Jun. 15 2011 01:25 PM

Is this only me, or is Radiolab becoming more and more religious over time. Hope it's not a trend, it kinds of spoil my eagerness to listen to another episode.

Jun. 15 2011 12:40 PM

Video, not the greatest though, of it I found on YouTube:

Jun. 15 2011 08:30 AM

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