Though the concept of a “mechanical man” goes back to Leonardo da Vinci’s 1495 sketch of a “mechanical knight,” the actual term “robot” wasn’t coined until 1920. That’s when Czech playwright, novelist, and journalist Karel Čapek introduced his famous play R.U.R., or Rossum's Universal Robots, about mass-produced workers made using biotechnology and lacking nothing except a soul and feelings.
The word “robot” came from the Slavonic word, rabota, which means servitude of forced labor. Čapek had apparently first toyed with the term “Labori,” from the Latin word for labor, but ultimately decided that “Roboti,” or “Robots” in English, sounded way cooler. And I don’t think anyone today would disagree!
Čapek’s robots in R.U.R. are of the terrifying variety to us humans—in so far as they first take over all jobs, then take over the army, and then the world. They are so successful, in fact, that they even make human reproduction an irrelevant and forgotten art, and eventually all humans, except one unlucky soul, die out and are killed.
That’s when the robots start freaking out a little because they realize they actually don’t know how to make more robots—the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) clearly wasn’t well developed yet—and they, too, are at risk of going extinct. Luckily, for the robots at least, just as things start looking rather bleak, a male and a female robot suddenly develop feelings, fall in love and run off (“presumably”) to have lots of robot babies and populate the world again. A happy ending of sorts, if you’re more robotically than humanly inclined!
Since R.U.R., cyborgs, androids, drones, robots, and transformers have become a cornerstone of popular culture, showing up everywhere from books to films to TV shows, cartoons, songs, and now fully functioning robots and robot pets. Humans are, it seems even despite the frequently alluded to dangers, robot obsessed.
Even the great classical authors like Homer, Plato, Tacitus, and others used recurring themes of taking bronze and clay statues (In Book 18 of The Iliad, Hephaestus, the god of all mechanical arts, was assisted by two moving female statues made from gold). By the time history’s favorite, first engineer and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, sketched his mechanical knight, based on a system of pulleys and levers to make it stand, sit, raise its visor, and move its arm, his ideas were positively old fashioned!
Enter Harry Houdini—famed magician and appallingly bad actor—whose 1919 film, The Master Mystery, was the first film to feature a robot, named Q (“The Automation”), who posed as Harry’s evil nemesis. The 1920s, however, was a time when the robot film floodgates really opened with classics like Edmond Hamilton’s The Metal Giants (1926), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and S. Fowler Wright’s Automata (1929), capturing the public’s attention and both frightening and delighting them. In possibly equal measure, the tales of 300-foot-tall robot armies came in Maria the Maschinenmensch, who was created to quell worker rebellion and increase the machine takeover of human jobs, just before wiping humans out altogether.
Indeed, it wasn’t until Asimov came along in the ’40s and ’50s that robots started to get a slightly better reputation, mainly thanks to his now famous three laws of robotics. Not that the laws always worked perfectly (robots, apparently, are pretty expert at finding loopholes); however, they did at least help create the idea of a more “lovable” robot in the annals of science fiction. This paved the way for more amicable robot/human relations in movies and shows like Lost in Space, Forbidden Planet (Ahhh, Robbie!), Star Wars, Short Circuit, and even WALL-E.
In Japan, the comic book series Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka garnered worldwide fandom, with its adorable 100,000 horsepower, atomic-powered robot built to look like a small boy, who spent his days helpfully battling a plethora of evil robots and aliens.
Robots weren’t all humanoid, however. In 1953, Ray Bradbury published his famous Fahrenheit 451, featuring the terrifying mechanical hound (who, luckily, you’d be able to defend yourself against with one of Elon Musk’s new and otherwise seemingly pointless flamethrowers).
The 1960s saw humans taking back a bit of control in the man vs. machine battle, with robot maids in frilly French maid outfits, like the adorable but not especially efficient Rosie the Robot in The Jetsons, who was always quick to offer unwanted advice and an eye-roll whenever Judy Jetson professed her undying love for some boy (again, and again, and again).
The 1970s saw the return of robot enemies, especially with the cult TV show Battlestar Galactica, which was just as brilliant, if not more so when it was re-imagined for the 21st century, even though the enemy Cylons in the newer version were so humanoid as to be indistinguishable from real humans, posing a number of moral and spiritual questions.
The late ’70s saw another robot redemption, both in book and film, first with Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where we meet the endearingly depressed Marvin, the Paranoid Android. No matter how bad your day is, it’s guaranteed that Marvin is having a worse time—making you laugh in the process. He was the antithesis of robots lacking feelings, a robot with the intelligence to do amazing things but experiencing the will and drive to do very little. Don’t we all know that feeling too well?
Similarly, the late ’70s brought us arguably the best loved and most iconic robot of all time, R2-D2, the small astromech droid of Star Wars fame. Sure, he doesn’t do too much more than rolling around beeping and chirping, but he’s so friendly and loveable, nobody minds! Later he was joined by his more vocal and humanoid friend, C-3PO, and together the two brought fantastic levity to any scene they featured in.
As a child of the ‘80s, I’d be remiss to neglect mentioning my personal all-time childhood favorite robots, the Transformers from the cartoon series Transformers, and especially the fearless leader of the Autobots—Optimus Prime. Has there ever been a robot so, um, transformative? So fearless? So persistent in his drive to battle the nefarious Decepticons week after week? Nope! There has not!
Also, one can’t mention classic robots of the ’80s without touching on the Terminator movies: "Skynet just became self-aware." Skynet, of course, was the system that gave rise to the Terminators, the titular, time-traveling, killer robots. Any true robotics fan will tell you that you’d be hard pressed to find a more perfect pop-culture robot than Terminator 2’s T-1000, that’s sleek, super-fast, able to impersonate its victims, with limbs that could turn into deadly weapons instantaneously, and seemingly indestructible to boot.
Of course, robots showed up in more than just books and films; they were big on the music scene too. Who can forget the Beastie Boys’ epic Intergalactic video (portraying the trio manning a robot and battling a terrifying squid-headed creature), which won Best Hip Hop Video at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1999?
The list of quintessential robots goes on and on, and I’m sure I’ve probably missed one or two of your personal favorites (Sorry! Please feel free to mention them in the comments below!). What’s certain, though, is that robots always have and probably always will capture our creative imagination, and we likely have many more decades of distinctive robot battles and friendships ahead of us.
Mouser Electronics is pleased to feature robotics as part of this year’s Empowering Innovation Together (EIT) program! Popular in pop culture, robots are shaping the future, with thanks in part to manufacturers like Analog Devices, Intel, Microchip, and Molex. Look for upcoming videos, eBooks, and blogs that explore collaborative robots, service robots, and human augmentation with robotics.
A regular speaker on the tech conference circuit and a Senior Director at FTI Consulting, SJ Barak is an authority on the electronics space, social media in a b2b context, digital content creation and distribution. She has a passion for gadgets, electronics, and science fiction.
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