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"...a market economy is essentially a genetic algorithm for solving resource allocation problems..."
- Charles Stross

Golden Shuttles (Mechanical Mice)  
  Very small robots with an appetite for watch parts.  

In this excellent short story, Dan Burman is a famed inventor; however, he had actually invented only one machine - a psychophone that allows him to visit a kind of future. He brings back the blueprints for an unusual invention, one whose function is not immediately obvious.

Once constructed, one of the machine's first actions is to use hidden mechanical arms to reach out and steal a fine clock and a pocket watch. Over time, the Robot Mother steals dozens of watches from local jewelry stores. The thefts are accomplished by tiny robots no larger than mice.

... there came a very tiny, very subtle and extremely high-pitched whine. Something small, metallic, glittering had shot through one of the rat holes, fled across the floor toward the churning monstrosity. A trapdoor opened and swallowed it with such swiftness that it had disappeared before I realized what I'd seen. The thing had been a cylindrical, polished object resembling the shuttle of a sewing machine, but about four times the size. And it had been dragging something also small and metallic.

From The Mechanical Mice, by Maurice A.  Hugi.
Published by Astounding Stories in 1941
Additional resources -

The shuttle of a sewing machine is the special part that makes chain stitches possible; old-fashioned ones were roughly bullet-shaped, about one-half inch in diameter and an inch and a half long.

The tiny robots stole watch parts for its controller, the Robot Mother. These tiny gears and screws provided the Robot Mother with the materials with which to create more golden shuttles, as well as other tiny bots.

The author provides the following additional details about these tiny robotic wonders:

... the nose cap of the [golden shuttle] had opened fanwise, like an iris diaphragm, and a pair of jointed metal arms were folded inside, hugging a medium-sized diamond.

Be sure to take a look at the entry for Robot Mother, a very early reference to a self-reproducing robot that precedes scientific papers on the subject by at least seven years. You might also be interested in some of the children (and grandchildren) of this idea: Ray Bradbury's robot mice from The Martian Chronicles (1950) and dustmice, tiny robot detectives from Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990).

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Mechanical Mice
  More Ideas and Technology by Maurice A.  Hugi
  Tech news articles related to The Mechanical Mice
  Tech news articles related to works by Maurice A.  Hugi

Golden Shuttles (Mechanical Mice)-related news articles:
  - Eco-Be! Mini Robot From Citizen
  - Micro-Mouse Robots With Grippers Tournament
  - XT-1 Micro Mouse With Blazing Speed
  - EggTorte Mini Micromouse
  - MicroTug Is A Micro Robot Beast

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Stan, Robot Valet, Will Drag Your Car Away
Jibo Home Robot Says Goodbye, Is Killswitched
I Can't Resist Worm Robots

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