The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
ROBOTS ON STAMPS
Imagine that you had a product that cost 0.002 cents each to manufacture but could be sold for 50 cents apiece? That's a 2,500,000% profit! Wouldn't you try to get every person in the world to buy one, or two, or a dozen? And keep them coming back to buy them over and over, year after year. It's almost like legalized stealing.
Welcome to the colorful world of commemorative stamps. The first modern stamps are the British one penny issue of 1840, carrying a portrait of Queen Victoria. For most of the next fifty years stamps normally had images of their countries' rulers, current or historic, and were used purely and simply to pay the mailing fee. It didn't take long for postal authorities to realize that people were becoming obsessed with the small collectibles, with the most interesting images having greater value on the secondary market. Why not, therefore, print delectably fascinating stamps solely for collectors? They could legally be used for postage, to be sure, but if they weren't money came in without requiring any effort in return. The profit margin, even given small extra charges for commissioning the engraving and maybe a bit of advertising, was greater than almost anything else on Earth. The first generally acknowledged U.S. commemoratives were issued in 1893 in conjunction with the Chicago Columbian Exposition, a slightly belated tribute to the 400th anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of the Americas. The 16 stamps in the series cost a collective $16.34, more than a month's admission to the Expo. That hit collectors so deeply in their wallets that an actual international Society for the Suppression of Speculative Stamps formed in 1895. They were laughed out of existence. Make something rare and desirable and collectors will be all over it no matter how foolish or expensive.
Forward a century. Issuing commemorative stamps were typically among the first acts of a new, small country's government, right after writing a constitution and executing the previous government. The century-old logic still applied: profit margin, profit margin, profit margin. An arms race of oddities designed to lure collectors ensued, with commemoratives made ever larger, or with more colors, or gold foil, or lenticular images, or in striking geometrical shapes. These tended to cost more to manufacture and therefore cut profits, the one cardinal sin. Most countries most of the time compromised by issuing ordinary flat rectangular stamps with subjects appealing to specialized audiences, as many collectors became. I collect stamps issued by rocket mail pioneers of the 1930s. You can find collectors of race cars on stamps, or dinosaurs on stamps, or movie stars on stamps, or even stamps on stamps (really).
And so, inevitably, countries got around to issuing stamps with robots on them. It took them a comparatively long time to notice robots and most countries apparently don't find them lucrative because they don't return to the subject very often. Robots on stamps are a very tiny niche. (Tinier than rocket mail stamps from the 1930s when rockets didn't even exist and no country even had rocket mail? Yes, by an order of magnitude. Reality is not logical.) My collection of robot stamps covers a sizable fraction of all the ones ever issued and they amount only to a motley few.
This is the earliest postal issue featuring a robot that I've found. Note that the robot image is not on the stamp, but on the envelope. As the collectibles market increased, governments grew frustrated at the low cost of a stamp. They noticed that serious collectors sought out envelopes that had been used to mail the stamps and especially EKUs - Earliest Known Uses. So they created an artificial market in EKUs, the First Day Cover (FDC), the stamp issued on an envelope with the official imprimatur of being part of the first day's sales. Even better were covers that contained a cachet, an illustration tying in the cover to some event. Stamps were legally bound to a fixed price. Covers could charge an arm and a leg. As many cachets could be printed as the market would bear. True collectors would want an example of every single one of them. Profit margins soared and stamp collecting became increasingly expensive. Those bags of 1000 worldwide stamps advertised in the back of comic books were like samples of cut heroin; worthless in themselves but crucial to getting customers hooked on the real stuff.
Premier Jour d'Émission is French for First Day of Issue. The European Community countries issued Europa stamps annually. This one from 1963 namechecks CEPT, The European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations. Reunion Europeenne de l'Automatisme was a conference on automation, symbolized by a wind-up doll and a robot.
Other countries also issued robot cachets. Japan did on in 1984 in advance of the 1985 International Exposition, or World's Fair, held in Tsukuba. Or at least it showed a robot hand grasping a human one. I'll show examples of more recent ones below, and even some robot cancellations of ordinary postage. The surprise remains how long it took to put a robot on an actual stamp and who it was.
Robots are more symbols than working creatures. In fiction, robots often were the enemies of mankind, taking away jobs, or freedom, or life itself. That doesn't play on stamps, where the slightest offense can be ruinous. Robots on stamps were always friendly, symbolizing a better future in partnership with their creators, often hand in hand. In 1967, the United Nations passed a resolution that 1970 would be its International Year of Education. Many countries issued stamps around this theme. Uruguay responded with children's drawings, one of which depicts a younger and older robot hand in hand, and possibly flying. So far this is the earliest true robot stamp I've found but that's liable to change as I search farther.
Here's the pioneering historical robot, Maria from Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis, part of a set marking the 100th anniversary of filmmaking in Germany, issued in 1995. The other two stamps honor directors Wolfgang Staudte and Wim Wenders.
An exquisite pure example of the commemorative as cash grab. Why did the Togo Republic issue a souvenir sheet of nine stamps featuring the characters from Lost in Space in 1997? The show ran from 1965 to 1968, so this is a 30th anniversary of sorts but not a proper one by commemorative standards. The best answer is that Togo issued stamps for Star Wars and Alien in 1994 and those must have sold well. So must this one, because the Republic of Guinea retaliated with two sheets of Lost in Space stamps in 1998, though neither one depicted the show's robot, Robot.
Too bad he didn't live to see it, but in 2000 Israel honored Isaac Asimov and his robot stories as part of a series on science fiction writers, along with Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. The background figures in the upper left are the Rabbi of Prague and the Golem he brought to life, a legendary precursor to the robot.
Australia actually released this series of space stamps with robot explorers in 2000 and then released it with an overprint (bottom left corner) for the Hong Kong Stamp Exhibition in 2001.
Countries love to tie commemoratives into anniversaries, one reason why there's usually so long a lag before popular cultural robots appear on stamps. Star Wars begat a fanatical clutch of collectors of every kind, making stamp appearances inevitable. The U.S. issued a sheet of 15 themed stamps on a large sheet. Of course, C-3PO and R2-D2 had to have their own. These are the FDCs for the two stamps. Other cachets are available as well.
Forgeries are rife in the stamp world. The American Philatelic Association maintains a huge library of stamps and books about them that serve as references. Some are easier to spot than others. These two handsome issues with chess-playing robots are labeled Palestine National Authority. That's certainly the proper formal name for the governmental body but a check shows that it uses "The Palestine Authority" on its stamps. Dozens of fakes were released from 2005-2008, including these, and they are still circulating.
Mobile Police Patlabor is a Japanese cartoon empire that snuck into every form of media. Wikipedia says:
The popular franchise includes a manga, a TV series, two OVA series, three feature-length movies, two light novel series, and a short film compilation, named Minipato (ミニパト) because of its super deformed drawing style. The series has been adapted into video games and licensed products from OST to toys. Patlabor is known for using mecha – designed by Yutaka Izubuchi – not just for police or military purposes, but also for industrial and municipal jobs.
Both manga and video were first released in 1988, making this 2008 sheet of stamps a 20th anniversary celebration.
There are hundreds of stamps aimed at Trekkies, Trekkers, and geeks of every flavor. Data instantly became one of the world's most famous robots - though technically an android - when Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the air in 1987. Countries couldn't exist using the 20th anniversary as a platform for making money. Whoever thought of obliterating Data's face with the First Day of Issue overprint must be one of the robot haters that f&sf stories talk so much about.
Palau, a tiny island country in the western Pacific that uses the US dollar as currency, didn't get its act together until 2008 before issuing two sheets commemorating the TNG characters in this 75 cent and also 94 cent denominations.
Chad, formally known as the République du Tchad, put Data on three of four stamps in its TNG sheet in 2015.
Stamps have always been kickstarters of lifelong fascinations with geography and remain so today. Take the Grenadines. They are an archipelago of 32 islands that lie between St. Vincent and Granada in the Caribbean. Carriacou and Petite Martinique are part of that chain, dependencies of Granada. Apparently they weren't getting enough attention on their own so they commissioned a precocious fifth-grader to sketch portraits of the TNG cast to put on a sheet of Grenada Carriacou and Petite Martinique $3.15 Eastern Caribbean Dollar stamps, a currency that is certainly as little known as the islands. Obscurities like these are much of what makes stamp collection fun despite sneers from the "cool" kids.
The grand exception to the waiting-for-an-anniversary rule is this 2010 WALL·E stamp, issued a bare two years after the movie appeared.
An even quicker move to celebrate a current event appeared in Korea in 2016 referring two 2015 events. The AlphaGo program became the first computer program to defeat on even terms a human champion on October 2015. Though the Deep Blue computer defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, the far greater complexity of the game go was thought to be out of reach of contemporary computer technology. What sealed humanity's fate was a match in March 2016 in which AlphaGo won four of five from South Korean champion Lee Sedol, one of the five best players in the world.
Also in 2015, HUBO, a walking robot developed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology won the DARPA Robotics Challenge by successfully climbing a flight of stairs.
Double-sided postcards were issued for each achievement. The ordinary stamp received a special robot cancellation while the cachet and the reverse side boasted a plethora of robots.
The world wide success of the new Star Wars sequels is a marketing bonanza that postal services are exploiting. The four stamps, part of a larger series that includes various alien species, picture the droids BB-8, R2-D2, C-3PO, and Rogue One’s K-2SO. Illustrations are by UK digital artist Malcolm Tween. They were released in 2017, the newest robot stamps, but certainly not the last. Many more robot stamps exist than are shown here, though I've tried to limit the excessive number of Star Wars and Star Trek stamps. For the record, the ones I'm showing here aren't random images plucked off the Internet. All of these issues are part of my personal collection.
Somebody, somewhere is undoubtedly wondering where I'm hiding Doctor Who's Daleks. The answer is nowhere. Not that stamps don't exist. Daleks, as you should know, are actually aliens in battle suits, no more robots than Iron Man is. They don't count. Yet in 2004, the UK issued what is unquestionably one of the greatest souvenir sheets in postal history, a limited edition of 1000 copies with ten images of various types of Daleks from the then already 40+ year history of the show.