The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE WALKING MECHANICAL MEN
St. Louis, April 1919. A Victory Loan parade, celebrating America's mechanical wizardry in the recent war against Germany, offering entertainment to goose the public into buying yet more government bonds to cover the staggering cost of the war. (In FY1916 the government spent $713,000,000 and ran a surplus. In FY1919 it spent $18,493,000,000 but collected an awesome though totally inadequate $5,130,000,000 in revenue. That yielded a larger deficit than in FDR's first four years in office combined. This Fifth Victory Liberty Loan campaign strove to raise $4,500,000,000, $185,000,000 from St. Louis alone.) With "events calculated to bring St. Louisans to the purchasing point," according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, returning troops marched down Washington Avenue in the heart of downtown, alongside heavy artillery and a giant searchlight. Mechanical innovations like a mobile machine shop that generated onboard power for its tools rolled in front of the crowds. They waited for yet another sign of amazing American ingenuity. Lagging behind at a slower two mph pace came the 12 foot, 5000-pound giant walking mechanical man at the prow of a ship named Victory. "Each step he takes registers a 100-pound blow to the earth and the legs go forward with tremendous force," crowed the April 28 Macon [MO] Chronicle-Herald. Designer Arthur B. Christopher, a mechanical engineer, said he'd been working on the giant for six years, sinking $15,000 to get the legs to move "with a realistic likeness to human locomotion." The name he gave to his creation? Fritz von Blitz.
Those of you who read Percy: Comics' First Robot will get the joke. Fritz von Blitz was one of the many names artist Henry Cornell Greening gave to his favorite comic strip star character, a mechanical man who could perform any feat to perfection and beyond. From almost the moment of his first appearance as Percy, the bowler-hatted contraption swept popular culture as the platonic conception of what, in our terms, a robot should be, with his tag line - Brains He Has Nix - a popular punchline and a tribute. Greening brought him back for occasional appearances as Mike in a strip titled Majah Moovie and then resurrected him as the star in the wartime strip Fritz von Blitz: The Kaiser's Hoodoo, wreaking havoc upon dimwitted caricatured German officers. In the contemporary peacetime world, Sunday color comics pages featured Percy again as Percy, getting a glamorous showbiz twist retitled as Percy in Stageland.
Everybody wanted a piece of Percy's action, and stole his name whenever possible, as various vaudeville acts did. Appropriating Fritz von Blitz for his mechanical man was logical for Christopher, no matter that the two mechanical men looked about as much alike as Laurel and Hardy.
From our perspective, robots in 1919 are weird enough. Incomprehensibly, the gimmick of the walking mechanical man was even then more than 50 years old.
There it is in April 1869, almost 50 years to the day earlier, already famous as a touring attraction, a scam so perfect in its conception that nothing would change over the next 50 years but the type of motor involved.
Scam? Oh, yes. None of the walking mechanical men walked while pulling a vehicle. The vehicles pushed the mechanical men. Like all good magic, the misdirection was simple and blinding. The huge motors involved couldn't be hidden inside the manikin, no matter that it was the size of Fritz. No invention of the time could give stability to a walking robot or imitate the intricate motion of human legs. Modern robot builders are still struggling with the problem. The picture in the advertisement above is a total lie. The steam man barely resembled a human figure, and certainly never ran a 2:15 mile, about 27 mph (43 kph), a time as fast as a good horse of the day. Pure bunkum, originally exhibited across the street from P. T. Barnum's collection of fraudulent wonders, the steam man was essentially an outdoor bit of vaudeville, an overhyped fake that nevertheless brought out the gawkers, whether on sophisticated Broadway in New York or in Evanston, IN, as in the ad shown.
That image was taken from US Patent number 75874, issued on March 24, 1868 to Zadoc P. Dederick and Isaac Grass. Spelling was as slippery as a stage illusion then, and various contemporary sources give the inventor's name as Zadock or Zaddock and Deddrick or Drederick. Reuben Hoggett's indispensable Cybernetic Zoo site has a full breakdown of the Steam Man's history. Dederick (Grass vanishes into limbo after the patent filing) probably received inspiration from the common surveyor's wheel and pulled the old switcheroo. By placing the man in front of the wheel, a surprisingly convincing illusion immediately formed and sustained, even to those aware it's an illusion.
Making the legs move and bend in realistic ways was trickier, but the 19th century was the golden age of automata. Dederick had the tremendous advantage that the legs were never intended to be load-bearing. The connection to the vehicle automatically supported and stabilized the figure, which is no more than a marionette with a large clamp at midsection in place of strings on top.
Steam men had one great defect: the steam. Dederick's apparently vented through the stovepipe hat, which may be good for a joke about Abraham Lincoln blowing his stack but illusion-breaking in a comical way. Steam carriages eventually yielded to gasoline or electric powered automobiles. Which meant that walking mechanical men did likewise.
On reaching the inventor the automaton stopped. Looking at the party, his lips moved, and I was dumbfounded to hear him announce in a deep bass voice, "I am going to walk from New York to San Francisco."
That was news, no matter that it was coming out of North Tonawanda, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. The St. Louis Republic ran two stories on the phenomenon, on September 2 and 9, 1900. A syndicate of capitalists (a collective noun like a murder of crows) had formed the wonderfully-named United States Automical Company to make a fortune from the invention of Captain Louis Philip Perew. (Or possibly the United States Automaton Company. Reporters couldn't get the most basic facts straight in the 19th century.) "It is a giant automaton which walks, talks, smokes cigars, protrudes its tongue and performs various tricks in addition to dragging a handsome carriage behind it." Turn of the century technology did not get any better; in fact, those are remarkably similar to the bag of tricks that wowed attendees of the 1939 World's Fair, when Elektro became the most famous robot of its time. (Except that Elektro couldn't walk.) Like Elektro, the unnamed giant ran on electricity, with the motor concealed in the carriage and the cable hidden in the pipe that connected it with the figure.
Perew had been working on his invention since 1891, developing it in ever-larger models until this giant-sized version strutted in front of reporters in 1900. W. B. Northrop wrote it up in terms as extravagant as respectable magazines uttered for The Strand's November issue.
The Frankenstein of Tonawanda has brought into existence a thing of wood, rubber, and metal, which walks, talks, runs, jumps, rolls its eyes - imitating to a nicety almost every action of the original on which it is founded. All that is lacking is the essential spirit - the Promethean fire, as it were - which would enable one to say to the automatic figure, "Thou art a man." ...
It could be made to carry loads in places inaccessible to ordinary vehicles with wheels; it could ascend heights impossible to men; it could walk distances which would weary the most skilful [sic] pedestrian; ... it could become a fighting apparatus, carrying death and destruction in its machinery."
Would it be allowed on the city streets? Would it not endanger life from causing horses to run away? Would it not prove too great a shock to children and nervous women?
Nobody appears capable of writing about robots without resorting to apocalyptic exaggeration. Whether Northrop knew he was dispensing nonsense is unclear - he states that the figure's power came from within itself and not the carriage - and unnecessary to know. The public on both sides of the Atlantic were primed to await the triumphant parade on the mechanical man on its coast-to-coast journey as it hurtled along at speeds up to 20 mph (32 kph).
They were still waiting three years later when a short article appeared in some newspapers announcing that Lewis Perew's 7 foot 5 inch mechanical man was just about to walk across country. And they were still waiting ten years after that when newspaper articles appeared announcing that Lewis Perew's 7 foot 5 inch mechanical man would draw a carriage the across country at 20 mph (32 kph). And in 1914, when the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette printed a story announcing that the mechanical man would visit while in the process of walking across the country. None of the papers ever followed up with a story of the mechanical man's arrival or the public's reaction. Their editors were duped by the press releases promising everything and delivering nothing. Why someone kept the farce going for fourteen years would be fascinating to know.
Was that Perew himself? A tantalizing clue appears in a patent he filed in 1924, for a mechanical toy that "walked" when the baby carriage it was attached to was propelled.
From the text of the patent application, it's clear that the same effect as before - the illusion of walking - is accomplished by mechanical means.
This invention relates to improvements in mechanical toys and has for its chief object to provide a self-propelled toy which is constructed and organized to simulate a walking figure pushing a baby carriage or busey. Another object is to provide novel means for supporting the body of the figure from the carriage, and also for connecting the legs of the figure with its body and the driving mechanism of the carriage in such a way that a natural walking movement is transmitted to the figure as the carriage is propelled.
Did Arthur Christopher know about Louis Perew? It would be surprising if he didn't. Obsessive mechanical tinkerers scoured the pages of newspapers, magazines, patent announcements, and technical publications for mention of their favorite toys, if only to purloin clues to solving the million tiny problems mechanical men needed to overcome.
All these strands came together one day in the small city of Alton, IL. The Evening Telegraph fortuitously captured what passed for news in small town America.
An "iron ban" [sic] who can walk and may be a regular Percy, the mechanical man, was taken out for a walk Friday afternoon, by a man from St. Louis, who wanted to test the man prior to closing a contract to have him rigged up to help sell Liberty Bonds. ... The St. Louis man could not wait ... and the result was a crank broke in the mechanism of the man. The mechanical man would not walk any farther. ... The mechanical man was at last pushed by six other men back to his shed where he will stay awhile. It was planned to use the man in parades to advertise the Liberty Loans.
That sure sounds like Christopher, but that Friday was April 12, 1918, a full year before his Fritz von Blitz debuted. So much, perhaps, for his story of spending years perfecting his creation. Did he simply steal another inventor's credit? Or was this an unnamed rival?
The Alton inventor was real enough, and so was his "Percy." Ferdinand "Fern" Pieper was a lifelong resident of Alton, another of the endless array of backroads tinkerers who often rivaled the biggest names with their creations. His story begins on the front page of the Alton Evening Telegraph for June 26, 1913.
HAS BUILT A NEW "PERCY"
Alton Inventor Constructs a Mechanical Man who Can Walk, and He Wants to Make a Giant
Fern Pieper, an ingenious electrical inventor of Alton, has constructed a miniature mechanical man who can walk, and who does it with remarkable care and grace, and who has much power behind him in his walking. Mr. Pieper operates him with an electric motor. His idea was to try to make a model first, to try out his theories, and then he would construct a giant and sell him to some corporation who might be interested in having a mechanical man walking around the country advertising their goods. ... He has his heart set on building a 16-foot giant man operated by a gasoline engine which could stride across the country at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, drawing behind him a little wagon, in which could be seated men who could guide the giant and operate the motors that would run him.
There it is, Louis Perew redux, down to the engines, the wagon, and the notion of walking the mechanical man around the country. Both sensibly started with small models and worked their way up as well. Pieper exhibited his model, or at least its legs without a head, in 1914, when the "mechanical genius" proposed a nine-foot version that could walk to the "San Francisco Exhibition," the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that would start the next February. Another demonstration took place three days later, on June 25, when the mechanical man walked "for a distance on the sidewalk of Helle street." The article devoted half its space to Percy.
[The mechanical man] is unlike "Percy the Mechanical Man" of the funny papers a few years ago, in that his conduct is more orderly. Percy was continually doing things to prove himself a natural outlaw and all of the machinery that caused him to do things, when a button was pressed, was inside of him. Ferd's mechanism man is not operated by inside machinery. There is some behind him that assists materially in boosting him along.
Pieper kept tinkering on the balky contraption. The November 21, 1917 Evening Telegraph reports partial success.
One of the exciting incidents was the sight of a mechanical man walking along the streets, making his trial trip. The machine has been in the course of construction in a building that was rented by a corporation which hid its purposes behind a name that suggested it was an advertising company. The mechanical man presented many discouraging features, but it is believed they have been surmounted and the people who saw the man out walking say he did very well.
This might have been the article seen by the man from St. Louis that drew him to Alton, a mere 20 miles away in southern Illinois. The next and last account of Pieper's robot is the aborted test run in 1918. Then came Christopher's triumph in the Liberty Loan parade, and the age of the walking mechanical ceased. A decade later motors small and powerful enough to insert into robot bodies became practical, so the clumsy fake of hiding them in attachments was never needed again. A 50-year era closed.