M.Y.O.P.I.A. 29: Robots 101, as in, Robots Have Been Around for 101 Years

As big a fascination as robots are in popular culture, as much as an absolute mainstay that they are in science-fiction, it may seem odd to think of robots as fairly young. At the time of this posting in 2022, there are very elderly people who’ve been alive longer than the word “robot.” Robots have quite the history when it comes to their integration in mechanics, computing, creative culture. Let me draw a distinction here. When I think of robots, I think of them as self-sufficient beings capable of thought and movement. I get that A.I., computers, and production equipment gets lumped into robotics, but I am going more for the concept of an autonomous robot.

The idea of a human-like being made outside a normal biological process dates far back in literature. Such beings were usually supernatural in nature. As science advanced, mechanical inventions brought about some new inspirations. Eventually, science and creation began to come together. The mechanical loom (1745) brought about a lineage of automation. Perhaps more pertinent were early clocks and clockmakers. Such clockmakers tried using gears and cogs to invent mechanical devices modeled after animals and humans. These devices were called automatons. The winding of gears in automata made them capable of independent movement.

As technology advanced, as people became aware of steam engines and electricity, mechanical-men/women/people, made their way into literature. In the 19th and 20th century, dime store books and comics featured such machine-people. Of such, Tik-Tok from the Oz series of books probably has the most lasting-fame. Come the dawn of the 20th century, industrial production had become a way of life for people in many countries. Automobiles were spreading. Home appliances were becoming common, with electricity available in new homes. Movies were a newer medium and the machine-man idea soon appeared on screen (the debatable first appearance came in 1919, with The Master Mystery). In all but name, mechanical beings appeared like what we imagine as a robot, but the term “robot” did not debut until a Czech play was first performed for audiences in 1921.

A scene from R.U.R.

The play was called R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots, and was written by Karl Capek. It was about robots built for the purpose of production and servitude. The play takes place nearly 100 years in the future (near our present, essentially), and is about robots realizing their strength and endurance can result in revolting against their human masters. Well, such an idea has certainly been repeated since. This play not only created the word, “robot,” but it was also first to imagine robots integration into widespread society, versus the idea of a single machine being treated more like an anomaly.  

Robot was derived from a Slavic word, “robata,” that referred to forced/arduous labor. Something of note, the robots in the play look like what we think of as stereotypical mechanical robots, but those in Rossum’s play were partly organic. As for some irony about wording, the term “android” eventually came to embody the more organic, or semi-organic beings like those in Blade Runner or Alien, while robot reversed roles and applied to purely mechanical beings. 

Capek’s play spread across Europe and was translated into various languages. It premiered in the U.S. in 1922. The word robot soon became commonplace for describing any prior ideas of machine-men or automata. Robots would again appear in film, quite famously in Metropolis in 1927. The New York World’s fair had “something” of a robot in 1939, (something because it could still potentially be called more of a mechanical statue). The world of science-fiction writers integrated robots into stories even before Isaac Asimov famously created philosophies concerning robots and humans living together cohesively.

In the 30s and 40s, the world was, of course, consumed by war, fascism, and economic depression. Still, technology advanced and so did computing devices. Computing soon became tethered to the idea of governing a robot’s intent. By the 1950s, the production sector in the US began using mechanical arms and calling these robots (The idea that arms could be called a robot always bugged me when I was a kid, almost as big a stretch as calling a lone tire a car). The atomic age, that era of cheaply-made science fiction and UFO hysteria, it integrated robots well. Wind up tin-robot toys came out in the 50s. Over in Japan, Astro-Boy first appeared in manga in 1952.

There were far too many robots in the media and literature to cite them all, but to put it briefly, by the 60s, robots were on TV shows, notably of course, Lost in Space and The Jetsons. In both, robots seemed so common that they seemed taken for granted. 70’s movies about robots and androids, began to ask some of the deeper questions about what truly defines life.

Robots in the 80s and 90s ranged from killing machines in movies like Terminator, to good vs. evil in cartoons like Transformers. The advancement of home computers in the 90s certainly brought everyone closer to the idea of accepting new technology into their home. A.I and robotics have continued to advance into the new millennium. In fact, we are living in a time when many beings could already be called robot. Often enough in this era, literature and entertainment hasn’t had to imagine what it will be like to live with robots, but has instead looked to robot prototypes as potential ancestors of a new robotic race.

The past 101 years of robots have created some of the most imaginative and inspiring stories. Through these stories, robots have in many ways represented a look at our own humanity. The very idea of them often forces us to examine what it means to be human, and how we treat others. As technology progresses and we inch ever closer to robots becoming commonplace in our society, perhaps we also need to look to the world of entertainment in order to find the best ways to avoid mistakes that have been imagined for us prior.