Could you make a steampunk style robot powered by steam power and Clockwork mechanics (In such a way that it would practical)?

  • Assume no magic is involved, just Engineering
  • Assume the brain is a computer (AI)

Note: The question is not limited to humanoid robots despite this being the most common form. In steampunk there are plenty of exceptions.

Does modern science allow a true clockwork robot?

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    $\begingroup$ I remember reading a story about a robot that was made of sticks, leather strings, candles and water. I haven't been able to find the name of the story yet. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2016 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ @J_F_B_M How is it Opinion based. "Is this scientifically possible" How is there any room for Opinion in that? $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2016 at 5:22
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    $\begingroup$ I think some people have been a little bit of over-zealous closing questions lately. If this is considered "opinion-based", what isn't? $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2016 at 6:20
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    $\begingroup$ My point is that of course, you always can somehow. The problem is that steam usually needs space, and a humanoid doesn't have that much of it on the inside. Where to put the boiler, the fuel, the feeding mechanism for the boiler? How to transport energy where it is needed? The level of detail one would have to resort to to answer this with more than "Yes" is in my opinion too high. If you say I'm not interested in this then obviously the answer is Yes, it is possible, if the reader would open the hood they can see it working, but sadly they can't, so I handwave it. $\endgroup$
    – JFBM
    Apr 24, 2016 at 9:59
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    $\begingroup$ I think this was probably put on hold prematurely. It is certainly no more opinion based than the question "Would a society that functioned on knowledge work?" (another recent question in reality-check, which has generated some good answers). This question could generate some interesting fact-based answers, and while the final yes/no verdict may come down to an opinion about whether the listed approaches are viable, those opinions can certainly be informed by fact. For example you could talk about how well-balanced clockwork needs little motive force, which could shrink the water reservoir. $\endgroup$ Apr 24, 2016 at 15:32

5 Answers 5


The short answer is yes

The long answer is: A robot consists of 3 basic components.

  1. The motor systems, which allow the movement of each moving part.

Building servo motors that use steam to operate is possible and you can also use artificial muscles (technically you could use tanned animal intestines for this purpose in the Victorian era before polymers) so the first part is entirely possible.

  1. The second basic component is the chassis or skeleton.

This part is what gives the structure and allows the motor systems to function, there is no problem in just using materials available in the Victorian era.

  1. Finally the third basic part of a robot is the "brain."

This is the prosador and is where the AI or algorithm is executed. This is the most complex part (gosh, I'm going to have to explain how a processor works mathematically for this) there are 3 solutions for this part, but 2 are cheating.

  • you can use transistors and not so advanced electronics but with modern bases and more compact systems and produce the electricity with steam.
  • you can use compact vacuum bulbs to make a more or less compact computer capable of running a very simple AI.
  • and here I have to get very technical (I will be as fast as possible and put it as simple as possible) there are 2 types of computers, analog and digital. Current computers are digital and work in base 2 that means that there are only two possible values 0 and 1 (although in theory you could use any pair of symbols) the difference between an analog and a digital computer is that an analog computer has a physical representation of the result while a digital computer is symbolic. This is easier to understand with the example of a simple 2-digit adder, in the case of an analog computer just imagine 3 wheels numbered from 1 to 9 that are connected to each other with 3 gears of ratio 1: 1 if you turn two of these wheels is the right direction the result is the sum of both values in cabio if one is turned the opposite direction the result is a subtraction, in cabio a 2 digit digital calculator in this case there are only 4 possible results 00 10 01 11 in this case 00 is 0 01 and 10 is 1 and 11 is 2 (note this is not how a modern computer works, it is just a very simplified example of an analog implementation of an adder, binary is more complex) modern digital computers work because it is demonstrable that any numerical operation can be performed with 2 values: true and false and 3 operations AND OR and NO which are the basic building blocks of Boolean algebra. In the case of a steam robot its brain would have to be a mechanical computer either digital or analog, ideally an analog computer designed to execute the AI algorithm. It would require gears and mechanical competes the size of a grain of rice or even smaller and would require thousands if not hundreds of thousands of them. But if the goal is an industrial robot like a manipulator arm the ideal would be a programmable digital computer (yes, technically you could put in a keyboard and create a high level programming language without using any electricity) as this type of robot is simpler and requires constant reprogramming.

Needless to say, this type of robot would have no vision and I am afraid there is no way to give it vision without electricity. In short the answer is yes, and I hope I haven't bored anyone with all that explanation.


It has been done on a small scale by model engineers and steampunk enthusiasts. Here are a couple of examples:

How to Use Real Steam Power For... Robots?

The author, Austin Sirkin, sounds a note of caution:

First off, let me say this—using real steam power is dangerous, and heavy, and just generally not worth it when you have modern alternatives. Except, you know, if you're a Steampunk.

He goes on to say that things like the quadrupedal walking robot created by I-Wei Huang and shown in the video accompanying the article can be built with the aid of a laser cutter, necessary to cut gearworks, axles, belts and "other mechanical methods of delivering power from one place to another" with sufficient precision to stop the machine vibrating to bits. Then he warns again that unless you know exactly what you are doing to attempt to build a steam engine is extremely dangerous, but fortunately there are plenty of reliable ready-built small steam engines for sale.

Via the above I found a second article which introduces a very elegant steam powered hexapod robot built by "Professeur Shadoko":

Meet the Steam Ant: A Steampunk-Inspired Hexapod Robot That's Actually Powered by Steam!

Inspired by the Steam Walker by Crabfu Steamworks, Professeur Shadoko of French DIY blog Brico Bidules built this awesome steampunk Steam Ant that's powered by a steam engine, complete with smoke stack!

The engine is a steam boiler that uses a small, dual-acting cylinder. It's heated with Esbit hexamine fuel tablets, which don't produce any smoke or ashes. The legs are made of brass tubes, which are attached to gears, with extruded aluminum feet.

Whether these small devices built for fun could practically be scaled up in size and complexity so that they could perform the more traditional SF functions of a robot, such as domestic service or fighting giant alien mecha, is another question.

LATER EDIT: I passed the question to someone I know who is into model engineering and steam engines, and he adds the following thoughts:

"For a steam powered robot you will need some material to burn to provide the heat. Lump coal is too bulky. You could try vapourized diesel fuel or coal dust on a fluidized bed. Use steam jets to control combustion. Or, to provide even more heat, you could use the sort of materials that are suitable for rocket fuel such as a liquid hydrogen-oxygen burn, hydrazine or plastic chips burning in nitrogen oxide.

"Use stainless steel to make the boiler. For that quantity of heat you will need to use “flash steam”. This means high speed steam generation done not in a boiler but in a tube network. Spiral stainless steel tubes would probably be best.

"Water will not do as the matter to be vapourized. Try freon or another chlorofluorocarbon, as used in fridges. Liquid chlorine might be possible. Or, for real heat, use liquid sodium in an extreme high pressure heater.

"The biggest decision is whether you are going to move the robot’s limbs by using steam for reciprocating pistons or turbines. With turbines you need a lot of gearing down, because you need to spin turbines at high speed. For pistons you could use direct muscle effect. A double-acting piston would provide bi-directional movement of a limb via a system of levers.

"One way you could “cheat” is to simply use steam to power a dynamo, thus making a steam-electric robot.

"It would be most appropriate to have the robot controlled by a Difference Engine as designed by Charles Babbage, but this would need to be quite large. Assuming the robot is controlled by a modern-style computer, the computer will need an electrical supply. To use an off the shelf battery would be crass. You could act more in the spirit of the genre by placing a steam-powered generator somewhere on the robot, or there could be a thermoelectric generator. The latter would require one end of the thermocouple to be kept cold. This could be done by massive radiating fins, or a cooling fan, or both. The electrical supply could be used to charge up an accumulator of sorts.

"By the way, one of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books featured steam powered robots on a world whose technology had regressed. They occasionally had to stop whatever they were doing in order to shovel coal in their tummies. However this was not an entirely realistic presentation of the concept."


I cannot offer the most well-explained answer, but all you need to do is using a steam-engine to power a electric generator. Add some batteries or other forms of electric storage (elcos?) and you've got electric power for your computer.

And now add electric motors to power all what's needed, like clockworks and... well, that's it. After all, it would be like the robots used today, but with a locomotive-like exhaust (except you use these smokeless pallets Lostinfrance did mention)

But it has been said already: it will not be the most efficient form of powering a robot... but maybe the most Victorian.

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    $\begingroup$ I added a link to the Wikipedia page for "Electrolytic capacitor", as the term "elco" may be unfamiliar to some readers. If this change is not what you want, feel free to edit it back. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2016 at 17:30
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    $\begingroup$ This is pretty much what we do today, except we generate electricity at a remote location and "pipe" it in on high tension lines. Almost all modern power generation is still steam based. $\endgroup$ Apr 25, 2016 at 18:08

Seems to be one of the only methods to build "roving" or self propelled robots so far......

Modern robots uses bulky, inefficient servo motors, primarily because they were built to be precise, not agile or fast. Living things, on the other hand, uses what resembles hydraulics in robotics: long, rod or band like elements that changes their length on command, like muscles.

The same also applies to construction machinery, for example, excavators uses an arm driven by three hydraulic cylinders, forklifts uses one pneumatic cylinder, both which are designed to be agile, fast and strong, but not precise. Your robots would likewise be made to use similar structures, pneumatics or hydraulics as a direct swap-in for muscles.

There is a field called fluidics in modern research, and one of it’s usage is to build logics that is independent to it’s substrate: metal, plastic or wood are all the same when used to make a whistle, same for fluidic transistors or chips. Chips which can be used as the control unit of the robot. Other things like clockwork, would also work as a cpu.

As for power, use a dual action steam or pneumatic cylinder as the muscle and a small steam engine to power the controls(any computer would work.), and everything left is a boiler. Use dichloromethane as your working fluid, make your boiler out of stainless steel, and drop in a pump. The rest is just fuel and some way to burn it. Coal in a firebox works well.(though probably anything smaller than a locomotive or car should use compressed air instead)

For controlling, use an automaton: cam driven mechanism that works like real living creatures, perfected at the 18th century. Use a system of valves to control your actuators, and clockwork gear mechanism to drive something that needs to be precise.

However, manual piloting would work the best. The human brain have the uncanny capability to extend any limb, sensory organ or appendage to outside the body if an adequate control linking process is used. This means that a manned robot would, probably, walk and do things like man, at least if it is made to be mechanically capable to do such things.

It turned out that there are not so much difference between a robot and a vehicle after all.

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    $\begingroup$ Is this actually an answer, or just a bunch of thoughts about that topic? Please, take tour and browse help center. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Jun 5, 2018 at 11:28

The short answer is Yes.

It would be incredibly inefficient, and it would ultimately rust out, but sure, why not?

Just remember that you need electricity to run the computer.

  • $\begingroup$ you have a good point about the computer thanks for bringing it up. $\endgroup$ Apr 22, 2016 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ It would only rust if you made it of steel... $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2018 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ Why? There have been any number of mechanical computers in history - if they were allowed to continue to progress (allowing for the ridiculous advances in most steampunk worlds) there's any chance they could become powerful enough to run at least a rudimentary automaton. Size may be an issue, but if you don't need terribly powerful processes, it's possible. We went to the moon on 4K of RAM in a largely analog computer, mind. $\endgroup$ Jun 5, 2018 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ Not necessarily you would need electricity, but a mechanical computer would be too many orders of magnitude slower than an electric one to be both versatile and useful. $\endgroup$ Sep 5, 2021 at 5:37

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