A Brief History of Awesome Robots

Ryan Jacobs

In Kevin Drum's latest feature, he imagines a bleak future where robots begin taking all of our jobs. Though he predicts this will happen about three decades from now, the concept obviously isn't new. The word "robot" first appeared in a 1920s Czech play (see below), which concludes with human destruction. The plot line started to seem more realistic when robots began performing complex industrial tasks. By 1961, a giant robot arm called Unimate took a welding job on the General Motors factory floor. Throughout the last century, robots—both imaginary and real—have fascinated us with their skills, quirks, and eerie human-like qualities. The timeline below highlights some of the most memorable machine moments and personalities.

1921 - Rossum's Universal Robots
A scene from a R.U.R production. Wikipedia

The word robot first appeared in 1921 when Czech playwright Karel Capek's drama R.U.R.(Rossum’s Universal Robots) premiered in Prague. The story follows the employees of a factory producing cheap and efficient robotic labor. While Capek is widely credited for the word's invention, he attempted to correct the record in a 1933 article for the Czech newspaperLidove noviny:

It was like this: the idea for the play came to said author in a single, unguarded moment. And while it was still warm he rushed immediately to his brother Josef, the painter, who was standing before an easel and painting away at a canvas till it rustled.

"Listen, Josef," the author began, "I think I have an idea for a play." "What kind," the painter mumbled (he really did mumble, because at the moment he was holding a brush in his mouth). The author told him as briefly as he could. "Then write it," the painter remarked, without taking the brush from his mouth or halting work on the canvas. The indifference was quite insulting.

"But," the author said, "I don't know what to call these artificial workers. I could call them Labori, but that strikes me as a bit bookish."
"Then call them Robots," the painter muttered, brush in mouth, and went on painting. And that's how it was. Thus was the word Robot born; let this acknowledge its true creator.

The Czech word "robota" is roughly translated as servitude or drudgery. Tragically, the robots go far beyond their servant role, eliminating every human on Earth except the factory's old architect, Mr. Alquist. With the building manuscripts torched and his mind going, Alquist hopes the machines can figure out how to reproduce themselves and live on as "the shadow of man."

1927 - Maria

In a utopian city in the future, workers toil below ground to keep things running smoothly above. With a potential worker uprising looming, the city's founder instructs his lackey scientist to construct a robot that looks like one of the workers, Maria, so it can crush the rebellion. The metallic star of German filmmaker Fritz Lang's famous silent film Metropolisinspired many other movie depictions of robots, including C-3PO

Story continues at: Mother Jones

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