We, Robots: Robots from the 1920s to the 1990s

Posted by Dan Cohen in June 16, 2015.

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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.

Scene from Karel Capek's play R.U.R.

Scene from Karel Capek’s play “R.U.R.” Set designed by: Lee Simonson. Costumes by: Kate Drain Lawson. 1928-1929. New York Public Library.

 

Sylvia Field (Helena) and Albert Van Dekker (Radius, a robot)

Sylvia Field (Helena) and Albert Van Dekker (Radius, a robot). 1928-1929. New York Public Library.

 

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.

Girl sits in lap of mechanical man

“Girl sits in lap of mechanical man,” Leslie Jones Collection, Boston Public Library.

 

Robot_Broadway_Department_Store_Los_Angeles_CA_1935_image

Robot, Broadway Department Store, Los Angeles, CA, 1935. University of Southern California Libraries. The robot was first displayed at the San Diego Pacific International Exposition of 1935.

 

Community_Chest_robot_1951

Community Chest robot, 1951. University of Southern California Libraries.

 

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:

INTERVIEW WITH TALKING ROBOT

“Interview with Talking Robot Made Entirely of Auto Parts” Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, 1965.

 

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.

A view of ROBART I, an autonomous sentry robot developed by Lieutenant Commander Bart Everett, at the Naval Surface Weapons Center.

ROBART I, completed in 1982 by Bart Everett.

 

A view of ROBART II, an autonomous sentry robot developed at the Naval Surface Weapons Center by Lieutenant Commander Bart Everett.

ROBART II, 1983.

 

Sharon Hogge, another military electronics engineer, worked on a separate track for robots that were the forerunners of today’s automated mechanical arms.

Sharon Hogge, an electronics engineer, poses with heavy-lift hydraulic mobile robot being investigated at the Naval Surface Weapons Center Research and Development Laboratory.

Sharon Hogge with heavy-lift hydraulic mobile robot, 1983.

 

Other, creepier designs were explored by the Department of Defense, such as this spider model:

A view of a six-legged walker robot at the Naval Surface Weapons Center.

Six-legged walker robot at the Naval Surface Weapons Center.

 

But for all of the creative designs and popular imagination, most of the implemented robots ended up being smaller bomb-defusing, tread-based designs.

A close-up view of the explosives ordnance disposal robot unit.

1991 prototype of today’s explosives ordnance disposal robot.

 

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.