The servant of the future -- a robotic servant polishes a man's shoes while he sits reading in his armchair.      Date: 1929

Looking back to the future – robots in the archive

Earlier this month The Science Museum in London opened their much-anticipated blockbuster exhibition ‘Robots’, the first of its kind in the world which charts a comprehensive history of robotics, from their early days right through to the robots of the future.

I wanted to pick out some visual highlights from our archive, which show the diverse nature of how robots have been celebrated in visual media throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Visions of the future

Robots, or ‘automated and mechanical machinery’ were often discussed in 19th century engineering and scientific periodicals, in speculation of how the future may look.  An early example in the archive appears in the ‘La Science Illustrée’, 1896 which shows unusual-looking ‘futuristic’, metallic, almost anthropomorphic machines working on a farm.  In La Nature, 1893 Canadian inventor George Moore’s ‘Steam Man’, a fully mobile robot automaton powered by an internal steam engine is featured.

Early robotics are also featured in an 1886 edition of the British comic ‘Funny Folks’ with a slightly humorous illustration showing a railway commuter in an an automatic shaving and boot polishing chair. ‘The Very Latest Development of the Automatic Mania’, ‘Drop a penny in the hole and take your seat’.

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Rise of the Robot

Robots were first introduced into popular culture by Karel Capek’s science fiction play of 1921, ‘R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)’. Capek was a Czech writer who, through theatrics, made the Czech word ‘robot’ popular in the English language and synonymous within the realms of science fiction. A much-loved highlight of the Mary Evans archive is the extensive collection of Pulp Science Fiction magazines, published between the 1920s and 1950s and acquired for the library by Hilary Evans. Whilst the stories inside were published in monochrome, the illustrated front covers were reproduced in vivid colour with imagined, utterly bizarre scenarios and many of the stories were based on, or featured robots. Sometimes they were friendly, sometimes not, some from other planets and some closer to home, but nevertheless certainly ‘amazing’ and ‘startling’ as the titles would suggest.

 

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Karel Capek and a programme for the first English production of the play, also known as R.U.R. and written by Karel Capek, when it was performed at St. Martin’s Theatre in London.

 

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Unusual news

Robots were also the focus of many non-fiction stories. Throughout the early half of 20th century, the Italian Sunday supplement, Illustrazione del Popolo (supplement of the Gazetta del Popolo), was well known for its vibrant, candid and overtly dramatic covers based on unusual events-of-the-week throughout the world. As well as coverage on subjects such as the paranormal, bizarre crimes and freak weather, robots were also a hugely popular feature of the news. The Illustrazione del Popolo flourished during the early advances of robotics at a time when they were still objects of wonder and fantasy and the newspaper played on this aspect, presenting robots in all sorts of curious situations and interactions with people.

Robots as a feature of disguise were often reported, one cover of the Illustrazione del Popolo, 18 August 1935 edition; shows Zorinna, president of a naturist club in San Diego, California, carried off by a humanoid robot – much to the horror of her fellow club members. The paper reports that this robot is actually a man in disguise, who thought it would be a crafty way to enter the camp, for what we can imagine would certainly be lewd activities (men were barred from entering)!

Another ‘deception by robot’, in the 6 January edition of the same year, we see a robot or a ‘Man from the year 2000’ has been the subject of an arrest in the Italian city of Pavia on the suspicion that it is actually not a robot, but an imposter – merely a man in disguise. The paper reports that the imposter had been disguised as a ‘Mechanical Marvel’  which had been touring around several Italian cities on an extended tour of Europe.

A few more examples include an anthropomorphic robot, which appears in a 1929 edition of the ‘Illustrazione del Popolo’ – in the form of a robotic guard dog, which had been invented by a French engineer. The illustration seems to show the robot in action, having deterred a gang of burglars – very innovative! Another quirky illustrated scene sees a New York impresario replace his chorus girls with electrically powered robots, however his ingenuity is not well received by the audience (!) in the Illustrazione del Popolo, 16 December 1928.

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Eric the robot

Eric the Robot was Britain’s first robot, designed by Captain William Richards and engineer and inventor Alan Reffell (pictured below) Eric was originally built to inaugurate the Model Engineering Exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Hall in London, 1928, in place of the Duke of York who could not attend, but Eric proved so popular he subsequently toured the world and drew in the thousands. They would flock to see this new mechanical man rise, bow, make a ‘speech’ and stare in wonder at his flashing eyes and teeth!

Shortly after his world tour however and with the continued advance of technology, Eric sadly disappeared from the world stage and was long forgotten about, until recently. As of last year the Science Museum had successfully funded via Kickstarter a campaign to rebuild an exact replica of the famous Eric, (what happened to the original Eric remains a mystery) and is now one of the stars of the Science Museum’s ‘Robots’ exhibition.

A notable example of Eric’s news coverage appeared in the Illustrated London News,15th September edition 1928, in the form of a diagrammatic illustration by artist George Horace David (G.H. Davis) who worked for the Illustrated London News for 40 years up until his death in 1963. The illustration gives a unique cross section showing how, concealed in his body there is an electric motor and a system of pulleys and cables. Eric also featured on the cover of French periodical ‘Le Petit Inventeur’, a wonderful illustration with Eric giving a shoe polish, a caption accompanies the illustration. ‘This scene is not a fantasy, the future will bring us even more surprises’.

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Pictured above right – Mr. Refell, inventor and engineer from Surrey with Eric the robot.

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The servant of the future -- a robotic servant polishes a man's shoes while he sits reading in his armchair. Date: 1929

A greater selection of archive imagery on robots can be viewed here.