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Monkbot Monkbot (Rosamond Purcell)

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.

As contributor Latif Nasser, a graduate student in the History of Science Department at Harvard, explains, none of the leading remedies of the day--bleeding, blistering, purging, or drilling--helped. King Philip II decided he needed a miracle to save his son. So he commissioned one from a highly-skilled clockmaker, and made a deal with God that led to an intricate mechanical creation.

Elizabeth King, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, describes how--according to legend--Philip II's plan played out.And 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.


Elizabeth King, Latif Nasser and Carlene Stephens

Comments [10]


I reckon the robot is a trade. God brought back his son, so he'll bring back the monk.

Jun. 23 2017 02:01 PM
Jaime from Ellenville NY

Did anyone consider that the robot may have had some part of the Monk built in or perhaps it had a pocket or place a part of the Monk could be placed. This way the Emperor could share the miracle to his people. Did the robot go on tour?

Oct. 24 2016 02:05 PM
VS from Maryland

Sounds like King Philip's son was a right terror:

Oct. 23 2016 03:53 PM
Wendy Taylor from Virginia

I usually enjoy this show, but in this episode I was completely blown away by the ridiculous and misleading summing up of Catholicism at the end of the program. We Catholics are all aspiring to be like robots? Catholicism is only about following the right "rituals?"

There a a billion Catholics all over the globe, from Nigeria to Germany. Look at the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Therese of Lisieux, Teresa of Avalia, Thomas Aquinas--look at the different personalities of the last three popes for that matter--all passionately Catholic, but one certainly couldn't say they have all followed the same mindless path, blindly following "rituals" like automatons.

I never thought I'd see the day when I heard a show on NPR sputter such utter nonsense. I'm so, so profoundly disappointed. Please, next time, do your research and think.

Snarky little summaries aren't always so clever; sometimes they are just lazy.

Oct. 20 2016 12:23 PM

do you think they could have gotten a worse quality video?

May. 05 2016 03:02 PM
Denise Coughlin from USA

I know that NPR was trying it's best to entertain us with this very strange story about a medieval robot that was built to look like a revered Catholic monk. I am very disappointed that NPR did not take the time to consult with Catholic historians or theologians on the origins of the artifact or the story itself in producing this program. NPR proceeded to air this episode with a Bill Mahr type irreverence and snarkiness on the part of the people relating this story, which was appalling. To say the least it was very insulting to Catholics and showed them little respect. I'm sure NPR would never want to insult any religion by doing a story that was sarcastic and irreverent towards their religious icons, especially Muslims. Of course you might get death threats if you did, so you have more dissuading you there. I truly understand your dilemma. Apparently Catholics have been fair game for years. So why not join the Bill Mahr crowd and turn National Public Radio into a mockery show too? Apparently sarcasm and mockery are what's trending....who would possibly listen to a boring show about divine love, hope, charity, integrity, and compassion, things the Catholic Church teaches. Instead you give them the impression Catholics are medieval and ridiculous by what you are presenting. Shame on NPR.

May. 31 2015 08:13 PM
Danusha Goska from NJ

Stunningly vile, hateful, ignorant, and hate mongering program. Is it a safe guess that not one single observant Catholic was involved in the production of this hate-fest? Is it safe to assume that your Catholic bashing talking head, Latif Nasser, is not Catholic?

"Monkbot" ? You really had to stoop that low? There is zero chance that you would ever speak so hatefully about any Islamic icon. Ever refer to the kaaba with such ugly language? Never.

What qualifies Latif Nasser to make ugly comments about Catholic prayer? Nothing.

If you want to know about Catholic prayer in Spain in the sixteenth century, you need to read Teresa of Avila, a woman of profound depth. But you will not. Your only goal is to denigrate Catholicism and monger hatred against Catholics with your lies.

The kind of rigid, rote, mechanical prayer you speak of belongs to one religion -- Islam -- a religion you would never dare to breathe a word of criticism against.

Your hatred and lies are truly disgusting.

May. 30 2015 09:01 PM
Marsha Bain from United States

Privacy on emails

Feb. 13 2015 11:01 AM
WS Lauber from Baltimore, MD

You might follow up with San Diego de Alcala (accent on the very last "a") by looking into when and why they bring out the body for viewing. I had the privilege of seeing it when I studied in Alcala de Henares in 2008, and, while I don't know a lot about the decomposition of human bodies, it looked eerily well-preserved for a monk who died in the 15th century. That plus Santa Teresa de Avila's (accent on first "a") finger on display in Avila might make for an interesting show on the veneration of saints. There's a story that Generalissimo Francisco Franco would sign official documents using her hand, leading it to be less than well-preserved. Contrasting all that with folk saints would also be interesting. What does it mean to be a saint, officially and unofficially?

May. 18 2014 02:49 PM
Robyn Broyles from Houston

Interesting episode, as usual. However, I think this segment shows that Radiolab does its best reporting when it stays away from theology, as some of the details of Catholic belief about prayer are inaccurate. It's true that King Phillip may have misunderstood what his faith said about prayer, but from ancient times, it was never considered a mere mechanical operation. For example, the 8th century monk St. John Damascene, as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, calls prayer "the raising of one's mind and heart to God." I mention this only because it's a common misunderstanding about Catholicism. Thanks for the episode.

Aug. 21 2012 04:43 PM

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