It has been more than 100 years of exciting research, inventions and key breakthroughs on the prospect of autonomous driving that will take our hands off the wheel. In 1939, the first autonomous vehicle, a radio operated automobile, was manufactured by Houndina Radio Control Co [1] and presented at the Futurama World’s Fair in New York.  After this first development, vehicle technology rapidly culminated, fuelled by the decades of digital technology and an evolutionary path that stretches back way further than one would think. 

Even before the magic flying carpet and da Vinci’s self-propelled car, ancient imagined worlds were laying the foundations of today’s technological miracles and early visions of autonomous vehicles, sparkled through vivid descriptions in the oldest surviving writings, the Homeric epics. The idea of autonomous vehicles is not as new as we thought it was, and Corfu, a city and island in the north-western corner of Greece, can lay its claim on the first autonomous vehicle ever imagined.

It was Homer, in the 8th century B.C. in ancient Greece, who referred to the technology of an autonomous ship that he called «απήδαλος ναυς» (ship without a steering oar). The Phaeacians used the ship in Scheria (Σχερία), an island in the Mediterranean Sea. Many archaeologists and experts identify Scheria with the island of Corfu, which is within 70 miles of Ithaca, the home island and destination of Odysseus, the mythical hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians (currently the island of Corfu), was the last stop in Odysseus’ 10-year trip to his home island Ithaca. Phaeacians were famous for their excellent skills in seamanship and maritime know-how. Their ships – powered by 52 human-moved oars – were described as unsinkable and could travel faster than any other ship under all weather conditions. These ships, however, needed no human captain. Homer describes that a Phaeacian ship could autonomously determine its optimal routeing, course and steering based on its intelligence. Thus, the ship was called “apedalos” (“απήδαλος ναυς”), which translates as ‘without a steering oar’.

When Odysseus was found in the land of Phaeacians, King Alcinous promised to help him find his way back home, providing him with an ‘apedalos’ ship, a driverless ship powered only by the thought, to take Odysseus to his final destination, Ithaca. The following extract of Homer’s epic poem is a powerful source of information on the advanced ship technology developed and imagined by ancient Greeks:

Odyssey[2]: Rhapsody Θ’ verses: 555-563[3]:

 “And tell me thy country, thy people, and thy city, that our ships may convey thee thither, discerning the course by their wits. For the Phaeacians have no pilots, nor steering-oars such as other ships have, but their ships of themselves understand the thoughts and minds of men, and they know the cities and rich fields of all peoples, and most swiftly do they cross over the gulf of the sea, hidden in mist and cloud, nor ever have they fear of harm or ruin.”

The first seeds of human imagination that have given rise to the current technological path and the evolution in automated transport systems can be found in the above lines. Throughout human history, thirst for progress has been deeply rooted in men’s constant struggle to overcome nature and has always been a driving force towards making autonomous vehicles a reality. Phaeacians have managed to travel to new lands by overcoming all difficulties posed by the Gods – controlling the natural forces. Homer in Odyssey celebrates the triumph of the human mind in the struggle against the natural forces, the limitless possibilities to navigate the world unbounded by its physical boundaries.

The Homeric “automated” ship, operating at its intelligence, only by understanding where people wish to go, reflects precisely the timeless quest of humans for progress. It is Corfu, with the “απήδαλος ναυς”, the town’s landmark, that lays claim of the first imagined autonomous vehicle, a symbol of the unlimited power of the human mind in its constant quest for new lands.

Odyssey[2]: Rhapsody Θ’ verses: 555-563[3]:

 “And tell me thy country, thy people, and thy city, that our ships may convey thee thither, discerning the course by their wits. For the Phaeacians have no pilots, nor steering-oars such as other ships have, but their ships of themselves understand the thoughts and minds of men, and they know the cities and rich fields of all peoples, and most swiftly do they cross over the gulf of the sea, hidden in mist and cloud, nor ever have they fear of harm or ruin.

The first seeds of human imagination that have given rise to the current technological path and the evolution in automated transport systems can be found in the above lines. Throughout human history, thirst for progress has been deeply rooted in men’s constant struggle to overcome nature and has always been a driving force towards making autonomous vehicles a reality. Phaeacians have managed to travel to new lands by overcoming all difficulties posed by the Gods – controlling the natural forces. Homer in Odyssey celebrates the triumph of the human mind in the struggle against the natural forces, the limitless possibilities to navigate the world unbounded by its physical boundaries.

The Homeric “automated” ship, operating at its intelligence, only by understanding where people wish to go, reflects precisely the timeless quest of humans for progress. It is Corfu, with the “απήδαλος ναυς”, the town’s landmark, that lays claim of the first imagined autonomous vehicle, a symbol of the unlimited power of the human mind in its constant quest for new lands.

Ancient coin from Corfu: (drawing by André Grasset De Saint-Sauveur – 1800)

Source: History and Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo.

 

1

An artistic replica of «απήδαλος ναυς» created by two artists, Cleo Brenner and Kostas Panaretos.
Situated at the entrance of Corfu harbour.

Source: The Toc Magazine

 

[2] Homer. “The Odyssey” with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.

[3] εἰπὲ δέ μοι γαῖάν τε: τεὴν δῆμόν τε πόλιν τε, ὄφρα σε τῇ
πέμπωσι τιτυσκόμεναι φρεσὶ νῆες: οὐ γὰρ Φαιήκεσσι
κυβερνητῆρες ἔασιν,
οὐδέ τι πηδάλι᾿ ἔστι, τά τ᾿ ἄλλαι νῆες ἔχουσιν: ἀλλ᾿
αὐταὶ ἴσασι νοήματα καὶ φρένας ἀνδρῶν, καὶ πάντων
ἴσασι πόλιας καὶ πίονας ἀγροὺς ἀνθρώπων, καὶ λαῖτμα
τάχισθ᾿ ἁλὸς ἐκπερόωσιν ἠέρι καὶ νεφέλῃ κεκαλυμμέναι:
οὐδέ ποτέ σφιν οὔτε τι πημανθῆναι ἔπι δέος οὔτ᾿
ἀπολέσθαι.”

Written By Dr. Elia Vardaki, Mr. Markos Papageorgiou, Mr. Angelos Amditis