Selection. Mechanical people and robots (pre-1930)


A Few Mechanical Men: Antique Anthropomorphic SteamPunk

In 1893 George Moore unrolled his papers and derived this wonderful mechanical man, a gas-fired steam-boiler-driven, half-horsepower, six-foot tall 5-mph dromedary.  It was made of “heavy tin”, had spikes on its heels for added traction, a  fire-funnel surrounded by water and connected in some way to a small but powerful motor.  The exhaust of course would exit through the nostrils. Or, in another version, the exhaust would come out via the machine’s cigar.

Earlier than this very striking machine came the 7’9″ steam man proposed by Zadick P. Deddrick.  The patent for the invention was granted in 1868, and was made to haul a rockaway carriage, the machine dressed as a man so as to not frighten horses int he street.  http://www.davidbuckley.net/DB/HistoryMakers/1868DederickSteamMan.htm

 

An Early Robotic Steam-Driven Society-Scrubber

I’ve addressed the ideas of early mechanical men elsewhere in this blog (just enter “robot” in the site search box at left and you’ll find two or three dozen related posts on the subject), but failed to include this very fine and early example by William Heath in his March of Intellect series (printed from 1825-1829).

He was particularly bitter about what he saw as an aristocracy of official ruination, and created an unusual steam-driven mechanical man with a book-driven intellect that swept up the great “rubbish” and “dust” of society.  At the top of this early robot (preceding the invention of the term by about 100 years) was a pile of books with a “crown of many towers”, which was London University, beneath which was a set of gas-light eyes, iron arms, and legs made of printer’s tools, sweeping away useless and insulting lawyers and jurists and their legal wigs and obsolete and repetitive rules, medical quacks, and the dust of other official abuses, “sweeping rubbish from the land”.

Another near-robotic image by Heath is his pre-Rube Goldberg automatic house, a central feature in the March of the Intellect No.2 (1829) which features fantastic flying machines hovering and screaming past the house.

[Source:  Graphic Arts Collection, Princeton University libraries, here]

It isn’t a robot unless you consider the entire house as a host for all of the things going on inside itself, and then you have something else entirely.

Robot-Man, 1915

The Burroughs Adding Machine company did about as much as anyone to objectify the worker in America during the 1880-1915 period, making the worker a part of a machine within the machine. In a way it was like creating the Ford assembly line for people sitting down.

The company was founded on the work of William S. Burroughs’ grandfather, William Seward Burroughs (1857-1898 and native son of Rochester, NY), who created a mechanical calculator to help him add long columns of numbers in his job as a bank clerk. American Arithmometer Company was founded by him and others in 1886, later evolving into Burroughs Adding Machine Company (1904), Burroughs Corporation (1953), and then into Unisys (combining with Sperry Univac in 1986) before sliding away.

In any event the adding machine connected millions of people to a mechanizing process of what had previously been a mental operation–the flywheel in the side of the head of the clerk/accountant in this add for Technical World (More Fascinating than Fiction) for August 1915 wasn’t too terribly far from the truth. Interesting that on the other side of the head of this fellow, behind the other ear, is a pencil.

An Acrobatic Non-Semi-Robot, 1876

This is emphatically not a robot-type contraption, not by a long shot–it just happens (if you look at it in a certain way) to look like one.  The automatic man was still a bit away, though Steam People and the like had certainly made appearances decades before this one.

The toys–Crandall’s Acrobats, patented in 1867–came in boxes, a number of “acrobats” per box, as seen in the following post from Tracy’s Toys blog:

I found both of these ads in the July 1876 issue of American Agriculturalist for the Farm, Garden, and Household, which aside from its fantastic contribution to the history of agriculture, is a treasure trove of images relating to working America at Bicentennial.

Here’s another beautiful thing, from the page facing the acrobat:

An Edenless World: the First (?) Metalic Woman Robot

No doubt that minds were sent reeling by Fritz Lang’s vision of the near-future (the year 2000) in his 1927 science fiction classic, Metropolis.  Life and work were one for the vast mass of humans, the drudgery of a cog-like existence in a vast underground machinery set to run a lifeless topside mother-of-all-cities was pressed and punched into the hearts and minds of the viewers.

The creation of a female robot in this movie is one of the earliest that I know of, surprising as there were male robot-like creations going back fairly deeply into the 19th century.  Perhaps the creation of female robots was verbotten because of the possibilities for unacceptable sexual fantasies in the high- and post-Victorian world, struggling under the weight of many and multiply-applied inhibitions.

Or perhaps it came too close to some part of the truth of women as captives of their society, with unequal protection of the law, scant political representation, belligerent educational policies, and subjugated sexual vessels,  a comparative cog in the male machinery  pushing the world around. The disposable nature of the woman worker had already been manifestly and callously displayed in tens of thousands of instances.  In cases like the Triangle Waistcoat Factory disaster–in which women were treated no better than their machines, costing the lives of hundreds in a devastating fire–or in the replacement of Rosie the Riveter (as soon as the job-hunting soldiers returned from WWII), and on and on towards the horizon, it has been demonstrated to generations of women that they are inferior bits of apparatus.

The first use of the word “robot” occurred in the science fiction novel/play  R.U.R (by Karel Capek) just seven years earlier than Lang’s film; perhaps this in combination with the Expressionist and semi-decadent Berlin Weimar culture and overall indulgences of the 1920’s helped create  the possibility of the Eden-less woman-as-robot. Granted the robot’s name wasn’t “Eve”, though it does have the name of the Christian mother of mothers, the seat of early hyper worship, and more popular than Jesus’ name for centuries:  “Maria”.

Robot Roundup

Robots, or mechanical beings, or mechanized forms of humanity or from the animal kingdom have been around in popular literature for many decades by the time this giant robot appeared in Texas in 19361. (The idea is old though the name “robot” didn’t appear until Karel Capek invented it for his book on the future called R.U.R in 1920.  Actually the human-like forms created by Capek in this early scifi work were biotech, and not fully mechanized.) The form of the robot stretches back hundreds of years, in a way–if not the exactly the idea of a robot, but at least with the appearance of one.

[Image source: Popular Mechanics, September 1936, page 400.]

Such is the case with Albrecht Durer’s (1471-1528) revolutionary drawing of a geometrical man, compartmentalizing the bodyd into distinct chunks–these and other woodcuts appeared in his Symmetria partium…humanorum corporum and must have been an amazing, startling site for the new reader to such things in 1537.To me this looks like visionary thinking in trying to understand the motions of living beings with no actual way of capturing the image in motion.

[This and many other images from the fabulous Bibliodyssey website, here.]

All of which are retro-reminiscent of early robots, like this from The Fantast in 1939:

[Image source: the wonderful Cybernetic Zoo website, with loads of images and timelines, here.]

Seven years late in Nuremberg Erhard Schoen published Unnderweissung der proportzion unnd stellung der possen, liegent und stehent…, which  followed Durer showing that the human form was reducible to connected but discrete Euclidean solids:

I have very little doubt that the imagery of human forms seen in the works of Durer and Schoen (set just a few years apart) were a shock to the casual observer, that the human form could be reduced to such elemental geometry. They certainly don’t anticipate the appearance of robots/mechanized life forms, but the images sure do appear that way.

No doubt that minds were sent reeling by Fritz Lang’s vision of the near-future (the year 2000) in his 1927 science fiction classic, Metropolis.  Life and work were one for the vast mass of humans, the drudgery of a cog-like existence in a vast underground machinery set to run a lifeless topside mother-of-all-cities was pressed and punched into the hearts and minds of the viewers.

The creation of a female robot in this movie is one of the earliest that I know of, surprising as there were male robot-like creations going back fairly deeply into the 19th century.  Perhaps the creation of female robots was verbotten because of the possibilities for unacceptable sexual fantasies in the high- and post-Victorian world, struggling under the weight of many and multiply-applied inhibitions.

Or perhaps it came too close to some part of the truth of women as captives of their society, with unequal protection of the law, scant political representation, belligerent educational policies, and subjugated sexual vessels,  a comparative cog in the male machinery  pushing the world around. The disposable nature of the woman worker had already been manifestly and callously displayed in tens of thousands of instances.  In cases like the Triangle Waistcoat Factory disaster–in which women were treated no better than their machines, costing the lives of hundreds in a devastating fire–or in the replacement of Rosie the Riveter (as soon as the job-hunting soldiers returned from WWII), and on and on towards the horizon, it has been demonstrated to generations of women that they are inferior bits of apparatus.

The first use of the word “robot” occurred in the science fiction novel/play  R.U.R (by Karel Capek) just seven years earlier than Lang’s film; perhaps this in combination with the Expressionist and semi-decadent Berlin Weimar culture and overall indulgences of the 1920’s helped create  the possibility of the Eden-less woman-as-robot. Granted the robot’s name wasn’t “Eve”, though it does have the name of the Christian mother of mothers, the seat of early hyper worship, and more popular than Jesus‘ name for centuries:  “Maria”.

Another view of the same 1936 Texas robot:

Another robot-image appeared in conjunction with an auto manufacturer there in Texas, though this time the artifical man was a marionette.

[Source: the great Modern Mechanix blog, here.]

Robbie seems much biger, plus he had headphones, a sly winking eye, and smoked a cigarette.

Source:LongsTreet

 

 

 

 

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