The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
I'm pleased to announce that the Robot section of Flying Cars and Food Pills has become a book, titled Robots in American Popular Culture. It was published by McFarland, that fine academic publisher of books on popular culture. The book contains all original material, although chapters include some of the wonders first brought to your attention here. Massive as the book is, I couldn't fit every robot or robot-related item inside its pages. Odds and ends and outtakes that required visuals have been appearing as a bi-weekly column on BlackGate.com and are archived here in my Black Gate tab. Put together they are approaching 200,000 words on robots, the most comprehensive writing on robot history ever assembled. Start with the 50+ articles on this site to tide you over until you buy the book.
Then be sure to visit my companion site to the book, RobotsInAmericanPopularCulture.com, for more than 300 robot-related images, keyed by chapter and page number.
Have fun reading!
Roy James Wensley, born in 1888, dropped out of school shortly after the turn of the 20th century in order to support his mother. Days he worked as a linesman and electrician's helper; nights he studied at his kitchen table, finally getting a mail-order diploma. His story continues to read like a parody of a pious boy's novel; he really did offer to work for the electrical giant Westinghouse for a month without pay to prove that he could compete with the educated engineers. They hired him and then sent him to purgatory, a sublimely non-glamorous job that involved figuring out a way to send signals to distant switch stations.
Wensley did, even making it user-friendly. Pick up a telephone and send a tone to the switch. Different tones, different commands, different results. He got called into headquarters in 1927 to demonstrate. The higher ups were all male and all engineers. They loved toys, loved playing with toys, and deep down inside saw all gadgets as toys. They called in everybody in the building and said, essentially, "Hey, come play with this!"
Without knowing it, Wensley invented the Robot. He had no clue, though, until one of the Westinghouse publicists saw it. As Wensley later wrote, he said "Why you have a mechanical man there. This is a good story for the newspapers." Maybe he did. Maybe it was that simple. The resulting story - "a mechanical servant solving all the housekeeping problems of the ages" ran in so many papers that Wensley had to buy a world atlas to find out where Tanzania and Ceylon were.
After his front page success, Wensley still had a problem. His mechanical servant was a telephone and a box of switches. Not good enough for the public. So he cut pieces out of wallboard, screwed them together, and painted a face on the "head." Presto. Televox the Robot was born. And then Telelux, and Katrina Televox, and Rastus, and Willie Vocalite, and finally Elektro, that giant gold-colored seven-foot behemoth who, with his pet Sparko the Dog, was the hit of the 1939 World's Fair. (The older man with sheer delight in his face in that drawing of Elektro at the top is probably an engineer.) Nor were they alone. Westinghouse the mighty corporation had a huge advantage - more than money to pay engineers they
TABLE OF CONTENTS
From 1869, a never-reprinted story about an automaton a half-century ahead of its time., with an introduction.
The first story to combine an automaton with the phonograph to make a talking robot.
An 1899 story by Elizabeth Bellamy about men and women and the "Automatic Household Beneficent Genius," with an Introduction.
4. MR. CORNDROPPER'S HIRED MAN
Take Bellamy's plot, switch the sexes, and presto - instant story. W. M. Stannard's swipe, with an Introduction.
The first robot stage act. And all the ones before it.
A robot is the perfect helper, unless he never stops. Meet Percy the mechanical marvel of 1911.
For 50 years inventors pursued the dream of walking robots, many of them in the spirit of Percy, the Mechanical Man.
8. HOUDINI AND FILM'S FIRST ROBOT
Houdini launched his bid for movie stardom in 1919 by battling The Automaton!
Bauhaus modernism created a dance of humans stripped to pure form and movement; cyborgs in motion.
10. THE LOOK OF THE FUTURE - ROBOTS
Does Bender from Futurama look like an old robot or do all old robots look like Bender?
11. PULP ROBOT COVERS 1920s-1930s
The early years of weird and wild robots on covers meant to knock your eyeballs out.
12. PULP ROBOT COVERS 1940s-1950s
Did robots get more sophisticated over time? Be your own judge.
13. EDISON BELL, YOUNG INVENTOR
Pre-teen Eddie invents atomic power, rocket cars, and his robot pal Frankie Stein.
14. MICKEY MOUSE'S WORLD OF TOMORROW
The world's most famous mouse fights robots in a imagined future.
15. ROBOTS ON STAMPS
A collection of robot stamps from around the world.
A robot Sherlock Holmes? With The Beaver as his sidekick?
had publicists, and if there is one lesson to be learned about the Future it's that publicists create it - yet were countered at every moment by swarms of lone inventors and their metal men. Alpha and Eric and John Kilowatt Ohm and Selena and Bugs and Robie and Big Louie and Little Willie and Clarence and Mac and Rupert and Sabor.
We are all Creationists. No, not that kind. We have the secret wish to create us in our own image. (Which means that some of us have really weird self-images.) We can't just build machines. Our machines have to work and stand and move and think. Then, of course, we get scared by our loss of control over what we've created. (That little mess over in Eden wasn't the first or the last such.) Friendly Sparko the Dog competed with the Golem. Pygmalion had a happy ending with his Galatea, a statue that Aphrodite breathes life into; Nathaniel kills himself over Olimpia, a professor's living doll in E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman." Frankenstein and Rossum's Universal Robots are figures of good and of evil, just like their human creators.
We don't stop creating robots just because they terrify us. We need them to remind us of what it means to be human. If we are flawed, they are not. Unless they are, in which case they are terribly flawed. They are us, and we can't stop creating more of us either. Robot's are the symbol of humanity's Future. They are us.