The History of Robots (Apr, 1978)

<< Previous
1 of 3
<< Previous
1 of 3

The History of Robots

By Forest J. Ackerman

This article is excerpted from a record made by the author. Consequently, to enjoy it to its utmost, turn off all the lights but one, sit back in your easy chair and read. As you read, you will find yourself being taken on a fantastic journey into the world of robots.

Hello, this is Forrest Ackerman, Editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland and Spacemen. I’ve heard from thousands and thousands of you fans since the world’s original film monster magazine began in 1958, and many’s the time I wished that I was the beast with a million eyes — in order to read all your letters quicker. Well, having heard from all of you, it seems only fair — doesn’t it — that you should hear from all of me.

As you probably guessed, I’m Doctor Ackula and Karlon Torgosi and his sister Vespertina. (Vespertina is the Transylvanian word for bat.) I’m also Weaver Wright and Spencer Strong and a long list of other names, including Mechanical Man and Robot Mitchum.

I’ve been interested in robots for about 35 years and as a boy of ten, I had the thrilling experience of seeing the great film masterpiece “Metropolis” when it was brand new. It was a silent picture produced in the mid-twenties and the most unforgettable scene was when the robot was animated. When that smooth, streamlined mechanical humanoid figure was commanded to rise by Rotwang, its creator, and slowly, ever so slowly, an inch at a time, almost like Im-ho-tep, the Egyptian mummy dead 3700 years, the robot moved and came to life. You could almost hear the whirring as Rotwang, his artificial hand covered with a black leather glove, ordered his robotrix — it was in female form, you see — to rise from her chair and present her cold, steel hand to John Masterman, the master of Metropolis — the greatest city on earth in the year 2026. Twenty Twenty-six, hmm. Come to think of it, that’s quite a few years yet.

Do you suppose we’ll have to wait that long to see real robots? I doubt it. Actually, already the robots are among us. And that’s the title of a fascinating book by Rolf Strehl. He says that, fantastic as it may seem, the time may one day come when the man on the streets may be as rare a sight as a horse is today.

Robot chess players may not seem very alarming, Mr. Strehl says, and electronic calculators that can perform in a minute the work of ten men laboring ceaselessly for a hundred years are an obvious advantage. But what of the robot spy? The guided missile with its atomic warhead satellite eyes in the skies.

The disturbing incident of the robot that ran amuck and Frankenstein-like murdered its creator. Of lengendary origin is our first information about the artificial beings known as androids. Aristotle described the wooden Venus, capable of movement, whose limbs were filled with mercury instead of blood.

During the third century, B.C., a flying wooden pigeon was reported.

In the tenth century, A.D., we hear of the creation of an automatic talking head. The great genius Leonardo de Vinci built a moving metal lion for King Louis XII and also created a metal dragon.

Leonard Maelzl, the man who invented the Metronome, created a sensation during his life time with a musical android completed in 1807. He also demonstrated a chess machine which inspired Edgar Allen Poe to write “Maraville’s Chessman.”

In 1778, Baron Kempleman of Bohemia, publicly demonstrated the first talking robot. The first machine to speak through artificial means. A publication of the day reported that “the monstrous thing spoke with a voice of a three to four year old child, in a distinct, clear and slow voice.”

In the French play “The Revolt of the Machines,” huge angles, super tractors, gigantic cranes, mechanical saws, dynamic dredgers, even psychological thought-reading devices clash with one another in the hall of a great exhibition. During the night, the machines break through the walls of the auditorium and run wild in the streets — destroying homes, knocking over towers, devastating fields. Military might is mobilized and army artillery is dispatched to destroy the machine monsters. But the guns, and tanks and cannons refuse to fire on their fellow machines, and instead join the rebels. A few human beings escaped and from a mountain side watched the destruction of their man-made world. Finally, the foreman of the machines succeeds in turning them against one another, but in the ensuing civil war they completely destroy each other. But the foreman is already at work on new, even more monstrous machines. And the likelihood is that it will happen all over again.

In his play, “Millenium I,” W.A. Dwiggins pictured another possible revolt of the robots. “Millenium I” is a frightening play about Homogrub, sub-terranian man, hiding from murderous machines which possess incredibly powerful means of destruction. At one point of the play, a human being named Blackmaster encounters Point 33 Plus, a robot. And the robot says: “In the beginning was man. Man created all things. Man, with his infinite skill, created machines in his own image.” Black-master interrupts, “No, no. Not like himself. That was not the idea. Much better than himself. Finer. Stronger. Man made you and we were proud of you but we made you too strong. You broke away from us. We lost control of you. You trampled us into the dust. So now we’ve come to turn you back into the earth again. Into the salts of metals. Back into the earth out of which we made you.”

And now, inevitably, we come to “R U R — Rossums Universal Robots.” The famous play that introduced the word ‘robot’ into the English language. The story, as summarized by Sam Moskowitz, is a tale laid in the near future, on an island whose exact location is not specified. Here the formula that chemically produced artificial humans for use as workers and servants had been adapted to mass production. The manufacturers justified their position on the grounds that eventually robots will free men from all toil and a Utopia will emerge. Unfortunately, one of the chemists alters the formula, and the robots who hitherto had been without emotions, assume the desires for freedom and domination that previously had been characteristic only of the human race.

The emotionally advanced leaders among the robots organized a revolt of their ranks, which now number millions in key positions throughout the world. The rule of man is cast off and the human race is ruthlessly exterminated. At play on their little island, the robot manufacturers suspensefully stave off robot attack, but are betrayed by the president of the Humanitarian League, who even burns Rossum’s original formula for the creation of robots. Remorselessly, the robots destroy all but one man who makes amend to rediscover Rossum’s formula. They offer him the world if he can held them rediscover the secret of the creation of life. However, he is only a builder, not a scientist, and cannot duplicate the method.

In the end, mutant robots named Helena and Pymus become the Adam and Eve of the new android world.

In the films, robots, androids and humanoids came to the screen in “Alita,” an early Russian space film of a trip to Mars and a finding of a robot civilization; in “Captain Video,” “The Colossus of New York,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,”—with the great Gort, the heroic robot from space—”Devil Girl from Mars,” “Forbidden Planet” —with the friendly voice of Martin Milner as Robbie— “Robot Monster,” “Target Earth,” “Togar the Great,” “The Tonkie,”—about a crazy, mixed-up T.V. set from the future that could move about—”Vampires Over London” with Bela Lugosi and many, many others.

Television gave us the notable Alfred Bester play “Murder and the Android.”

And now, if you will accompany me on a journey to the future, and a visit to a robot factory. Mr. Wells has kindly lent me his time machine. And Mr. Pal has graciously taught me how to operate it, so that we will not only get to the future, but be sure of getting back. There is one thing you must understand, however, before we take off. We can only go as observers and cannot actually intermingle. If we were to get into the future and get involved, there could be some disastrous results. Suppose, for example, a time traveler went back to 1926 and kidnapped me so that I never saw “Metropolis.” Why, then this story might never have existed. So whatever you do, don’t leave the electronic field of our time machine.

O.K.? Fasten your safety belt. 1970 80 90 2000 — Wow, travelled so fast, here we are in 2050 already.

Say, isn’t that a nifty rocket car that robot is assembling? It doesn’t look like it needs any type of tires or wheels. Look at that amazing sight over there, suspended in mid-air; great luminescent side — must be supported by an anti-gravitic principle. Let’s see, it says right — yes, it’s the three laws of robotics propounded by the great Dr. Asimov back in the middle of the 20th century. The red sign reads: “A robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.” The yellow one says: “A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.” And the white one: “A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.” Very sensible rules.

Robots must — GOOD HEAVENS, the cable snapped. It’s holding together by a shred of metal. The man there — the foreman — right below a car dangling over his head! I don’t think he sees the danger. The robots, the robot’s super sensitive photoeletric cells must have detected the danger. The robot’s now leaping at the startled man, who thinks he’s gone mad and attacking him. Now he looks up and he sees the danger too late. At the last moment the robot has swept up the foreman in his huge steel arms and tossed him out of the path of the plunging steel object. The dazed man is being helped to his feet by two other robots. He looks at the mass of twisted wreckage, and realizes it is the robot who has saved his life that lies smashed underneath. Smashed beyond repair. The faithful mechanical servant, saved his life at the sacrifice of its own.

Well, that was some experience. Now, just let me adjust this spacial control and we’ll move to another observation point.

There’s a sign ahead. “Fifty Miles to Rossum City — Population: 2 Million . . . Robots — Speed Limit: 200 Miles Per Hour.”

There is a jet car literally flying down the road; seems to be going faster than that that. Oh, oh! Police plane has spotted it. It’s zooming down, broadcasting instructions to stop. Well, I’ll be! It’s a robot at the controls of the car. And the police are robots, too. I see what’s happened. The robot driver has a human passenger who’s been hurt, and he’s rushing him to a hospital. The robot police are now moving the man to their plane, and there they go.

Wow! What a world! Wish I had time to stay here and sight see all over the planet, but the warning bell on my time machine has sounded, letting me know it’s time to return to our world and our own time. Hang on.

Well, wasn’t that something. That glimpse of the robotic world of the future. You know, something occurred to me while watching those automatons function. They look a lot like men, do much of man’s work. I wonder if . . . excuse me a second. Calling electronics department, please. Hi, Frank. Forrest Ackerman. Say, Frank, you’re a sound effects man always fooling around with electronic devices. Tell me, do you suppose robots would enjoy listening to music? I’m not joking. You think that if robots are an electronic creation that they enjoy listening to electronic music? So by utilizing the variable frequency audible generator you think you could create a scientific symphony? It would not only send our metal friends, but would also be fascinating to human ears. Would you be willing to work on it? You already have?! I can’t wait to hear it.

  1. blast says: May 31, 20115:13 pm


    And I don’t mean that in the technical sense.

    The more I read of “Interface Age” the more I am that I signed up for “Byte” instead.

  2. John says: May 31, 20115:27 pm

    blast: “the more I am”?
    And I am what I yam and that’s all that I yam – Popeye the Sailor Man

  3. Charlene says: May 31, 20117:04 pm

    I’m inclined to agree with blast here. I suspect that his lack of a vowel in that sentence was caused by his brain exploding from all the, um, shall we say insufficiently researched information in Ackerman’s article.

  4. Mike says: May 31, 20118:57 pm

    d?mo arigat? misut? Robotto.

  5. John says: May 31, 20119:16 pm

    Mr Roboto!
    That was a good idea, Mike.

  6. RBayard says: June 1, 20114:24 pm

    Edgar Allan Poe’s treatise was actually titled “Maelzel’s Chess-Player”. I think that shows that Ackerman didn’t do a lot of research into this article.

    Read it here:…

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.