I was flipping through Popular Mechanics on Google books the other day, when I came across this well-heeled little gentleman, and his Erich von Stroheim lookin' creator. Folks, meet Willie. Willie, meet my blog readers. I hate to bust in on you like this with your chest all exposed, but how else are we supposed to see the mechanical marvels that make up your guts?
The gentleman-scientist with the Teutonic haircut is watchmaker Andy Bober, who has taught his man robot to do all of the following tasks:
- introduce himself
- smoke a cigarette
- answer questions
- play a harmonica
- shoot a pistol
Sounds a lot like one of my college boyfriends! I jest, I jest (kind of). But isn't that fantastic? Fifteen years in the making, Willie isn't exactly Data from ST:NG... however. You have to admit for a time that predates answering machines, much less cell phones, much less the internet, creating an automaton type creature that does any of those actions is pretty cool. Bober was inspired by ventriloquist dummies of the time, and had the idea to mechanize what-was-already-creepy into what-will-probably-kill-me-in-my-sleep.
Can you imagine, in a world where cars and airplanes were less than a handful of decades old, how short the jump from "no robots" to "robot WOOOORLD" must have been in the minds of New Deal era magazine readers? I've talked with people before about how disheartening it must have been for people born in the early 20th century when technology outstripped imagination in terms of what was possible. Ray Bradbury's cities on Mars were 100% believable when Martian Chronicles was published in 1950. Who knew if there were webbed fingered humanoids waving back at us when we looked up into the night sky? Nineteen years later, by the time Neil Armstrong set first human foot on the moon, wasn't it a major downer to realize there's nothing there? What could have been first contact with other peoples, other possibilities, was primarily just a major "awww...come on". (Unless, of course, à la O.J. and Gould in Capricorn One, there WAS no moon landing....) But I digress.
Curious to see what Willie's competition might be, I used the search term "robot", with the parameters of 1930-1960, and found several other robotic compatriots.
In 1939, Westinghouse, the appliance giant, built "Elektro". He's the seven foot giant you see merrily singing along with his human counterparts. Elektro can walk, talk, tell colors, take a bow, and smoke a cigarette (robots! Quit smoking!). What is with giving the robots human faces? If you haven't noticed, your computer monitor in year of our Lord 2013 doesn't look like the yawning maw of a human, or have hands attached to it in an attempt to make it more "human-like", so why should these robots have faces like you or me! Notice how tiny the women's feet are in the singing photo (I always do) and how Elektro's eyes open and close. He looks vaguely perturbed in that one picture.
This robot has the same name as my Pappy! Unlike my dad, however, this Clarence's time is not his own-- he's rented out by his creator, Austin Huhn! Shame on you, Huhn-dog, for yoking your robot son to a life of servitude at the hands of human masters!
Last but not least, the Charley Weaver of robots, who has no name but plenty of personality. Isn't this possibly the creepiest of them all for his human-like attributes? "The creator of the mechanical man, a young sculptor, proposes the use of figures of this type in animated movie cartoons." Yeah, if you wanted to send your kid to bed with nightmares for the rest of his life! Imagine one of these things woodenly perambulating around a Stephen King short story. I can't! It's too scary!
So! What do you think? Which of these robots is the weirdest? What's the coolest robot you've ever seen in real life? Are you a fan of retro-futurism, where you look back on the past's vision of what the future held in store? Are you a vintage science nerd? Let's talk!
See more about Willie (and other pre 1960's robots!) on this comprehensive website, and this great article about other retro robots from Buzzfeed here. That's all for today, but I'll catch you kids back here tomorrow! Til then.