We, Robots: Robots from the 1920s to the 1990s
This is the third post in our Unexpected series which covers thematic discoveries in our collection. In case you missed it, the first post covered unusual snow removal machines, while the second covered football.
Robots fascinated the public from their moment of inception in the early 1920s, in the Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.
By the 1930s, department stores used the fascination with robots, signs of mechanical innovation and the future of the twentieth century, to draw shoppers in.
In the summer of 1965, this robot made of automobile parts toured the country, with a somewhat unconvincing voice and poor humor. WSB-TV in Atlanta interviewed him:
At the same time, in science fiction and the military, robots were less approachable than their department store counterparts. The United States Department of Defense unsurprisingly saw robots in another light, as a safe way to deal with threatening situations.
The first two machines in the ROBART series, created in the 1980s, were frighteningly similar to the Daleks from Doctor Who—vertical cylinders on wheels, jammed packed with sophisticated warning sensors but easily thwarted by the inconvenient presence of stairs. They could not yell “Exterminate!” but were good at detecting the presence of dangerous elements such as fire and gas.
Sharon Hogge, another military electronics engineer, worked on a separate track for robots that were the forerunners of today’s automated mechanical arms.
Other, creepier designs were explored by the Department of Defense, such as this spider model:
But for all of the creative designs and popular imagination, most of the implemented robots ended up being smaller bomb-defusing, tread-based designs.
After 9/11, these robots would become commonplace—a sad sign of our age of terrorism, and far less humanoid than the “mechanical men” of the early twentieth century.