The Early History Of Robots In Popular Culture
August 29, 2013

The Early History Of Robots In Popular Culture

The idea of “robot” has a much longer history in popular culture than you might think. In fact, Aristotle, in the year 322 B.C., was basically describing a robot when he wrote, “If every tool, when ordered, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it… then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers or of slaves for the lords.” I wonder what he would think of today’s machines.

Since the word ‘robot’ can mean different things to different people, for this article, I will use one of Oxford Dictionary’s definitions, i.e. “a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically.”

The term ‘robot’ was coined by Czech playwright Karol Capek in 1921. The play was called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and was wildly popular in its day. In Czech, ‘robata’ means drudgery or servitude – a ‘robotnik’ was a peasant. The story revolves around the employees of a factory that produces cheap and efficient robot laborers. The robots eventually kill every human on earth except one. That one, as he is losing his mind, hopes that the machines can figure out how to reproduce and live on as “the shadow of man.” A plot summary can be found in a blog by Dennis G. Jerz. As a footnote, the playwright explained in a note in a 1933 Czeck newspaper that he didn’t actually come up with the word. He was considering calling the machines ‘labori,’ but thought the word sounded too bookish. His brother suggested the name that stuck.

The term ‘robotics,’ used to refer to the technology of robots, was first used by Isaac Asimov in the short story “Runaround,” first published in the March 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. In this story, Asimov also first presents the “Three Laws of Robitics” which feature in many of his later stories. These laws are:

  • A robot may not injure a human, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

More information about this story can be found at the website Short Stories 101.

The first movie robot was ‘Maria’ in Fritz Lang’s movie “Metropolis. The movie has become a cult classic, and I must confess that even having become used to spectacular sci-fi movie effects, the transformation scene on YouTube had me on the edge of my seat. A website dedicated to the film includes info on a 2010 restoration that includes footage long thought to be lost.

One of the first television robots was ‘Rosie’ in the animated cartoon “The Jetsons.” To many people she remains the ideal of what a household robot should be. Calm, efficient, motherly, and able to anticipate the wants and needs of the family, she is still as out-of-reach today as she was in her heyday in the 1960’s. Times Keith Wagstaff describes her as the “robot maid with a heart of silicon and the voice of an aging cocktail waitress.” He goes on to explain why we still don’t have a Rosie in every home.

The last entry in our summary of early robots is the robot toy. The first tin toy robots were created in Japan after World War II. The first one was ‘Lilliput’ who was square and yellow. The second was ‘Atomic Robot Man’ who was given out as a promotional gift at the 1950 New York Sci-Fi Convention.

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