October 8, 1999 - January 23,
The Museum of American Heritage was taken over by
mechanical humanoids--with our colorful holiday exhibit entitled, Robots!
traced the surprising richness of
robotic evolution, with text combining history and popular imagination,
fact and fiction. Featured objects included antique automata, a wide array
of sometimes rare and colorful metal robot toys dating back to the early
1950's, and their practical descendants, the industrial, commercial, and
Robots through History
- Stories of artificial men date back to prehistory.
Pygmalian in ancient Greece and the Golem of Jewish tradition are just two
such examples. With illustrations and antique examples, the exhibit traces
robot development from marionettes to the dawn of the machine age, when the
possibility of mechanical humans seemed an achievable goal. By the early
1800's machines that worked on the same principal as early music boxes
mimicked the appearance and movements of humans and animals. These automata
ranged from charming chirping birds in gilded cages to human forms that could
draw, sing, write, and play musical instruments. At the same time, the
harnessing of electricity inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which explored
the dangers of scientifically engineered life.
- Origin of "Robot"
- A century later that danger was still being explored
when the term "robot" was born, in a 1921 play by Czech playwright, Karel
Capek. The play's name, R.U.R.
stood for Rossum's Universal Robots, and
the word robot itself was based on the Czech word for serf. As in
Frankenstein, the experiment it chronicles ends in disaster, with the robot
laborers rising up against their human creators. It was soon followed in 1926
by German Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a furiously bleak vision of a totalitarian
future wherein a beautiful female robot leads a revolt of human
Robots Reach America
The Real Robots
The American public learned of
"electronic brains", essentially electronic oracles in temple-like buildings,
in the 1940's. In the late 1950's and 1960's advances in the field of
"artificial intelligence" produced computers that could play checkers and
predict the results of elections, making a true thinking robot seem possible
to an expectant public. But serious scientists had become intent on practical
medical, industrial, and commercial applications. They soon discovered that
the human form was not necessarily the most efficient one, especially for
locomotion. Robots began to resemble other life forms, like spiders or snakes!
Local experiments with different forms of robotic "arms" in the late 1960's
and 1970's are chronicled in the exhibit by the "MIT" and "Stanford" arms,
designed by local robotic expert, Victor Shienman, a medical robot from the
Veteran's Hospital, and other miscellaneous commercial robot experiments.
Such experimentation has led in an unexpected
direction. Although robotic and computer technology has boomed in the last 20
years, much of it is hidden from public view. Few World's Fair visitors in
1939 could have imagined the sight of industrial robotic arms spraying paint,
welding cars and assembling dishwashers in pitch black factories that operate
all night. Nor would they have guessed that the huge electronic brains would
become so small as to be carried around in pockets, all but forgotten by their
Recent Robot History
Paradoxically, as the
prospect of a practical humanoid robot faded, a counter trend developed
in popular culture. The final portion of the exhibit features toys,
books and posters from the late 1960's to the 1980's, when television
and the movies reintroduced the robot, often as a friendly, helpful,
humorous sidekick. The television series Lost in Space
movie Star Wars
softened their robots' hard metallic edge
by giving them human emotions and foibles. Although scientists may have
temporarily abandoned attempts to build a mechanical human, the exhibit
shows that popular culture may never abandon the search for Robots!
One of the snake robots
from the show!
Some slithery mechanisms
This page last updated April 18, 2001