The word ‘robot’ may have first been coined in a 1921 Czechoslovakian play, but robot history’s been dominated by a battle between the U.S. and Japan for robo-supremacy.
The first humanoid robots (and humanoid’s the only ones that count here – no automata or remote-control bunk) were built within two years of each other – Herbert Televox in 1927 by Westinghouse Electric Company, and Gakutensoku by biologist Makoto Nishimura in 1929.
Herbert Televox (it’s adorable they gave it such a square first name) operated by sound and could buzz, wave its arms around, and accept phone calls, but not answer them until given a two-sentence speech function several years later. Televox was wildly popular and toured all over the country, leading Westinghouse to create other robots, one of which would end up at the World’s Fair (more on that in a moment).
Here’s Herbert’s earliest iteration before speech was added:
…and a later version playing bridge with the girls at the club:
(both pictures came from here, along with lots of other amazing promo articles and photos of America’s first Robo Pal.)
Gakutensoku, whose name means ‘learning from the laws of nature’, was closer to an automaton in that it wasn’t mobile and operated from a square base hiding function. Gakutensoku had arm and facial mobility, and came with a lamp named Reikant? (‘inspiration light) by which Gakutensoku wrote using an arrow symbolic of human potential, and robot bird Kokuky?ch? (‘bird informing dawn’) who perched on his shoulder and cried, because Japan kicks America’s ass in expressing poetic philosophy via physical objects.
It toured extensively as well, but was lost while touring Germany in the 1930s, a sentence fragment I take to mean ‘was stolen for diabolical use by the Third Reich’ (you’re welcome, alternative historians).
Gakutensoku was rebuilt and installed permanently at the Osaka Science Museum in 2008:
The background New-Age music isn’t just part of this video – also heard in several home movies, that’s apparently Gakutensoku’s ‘thinking music’ when he composes light verse.
Not to be outdone, Westinghouse created a series of robots with better technology and goofier names – Mr. Telelux, a light-sensitive robot in 1931, Katrina Von Televox, Mechanical Wonder Maiden, Rastus Robot and Willie, Jr. (not quite as racist as you’d expect, though Willie’s only functionality was ‘blowing things up at a distance using light triggers’ which…why would you even need a robot for that?), and their most successful public ambassador Elektro the Moto-Man, built in 1937 and displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair.
While we can’t beat Japan at thoughtful meditation, we can definitely out-cool the world (it’s why France hates/loves us)! That’s right, America debuted the world’s first smoking robot:
As Elektro’s ‘voice’ seems to come from prerecorded transcriptions, there is NO REASON it needs to talk like that save it’s being a total stereotype, fulfilling people’s expectations of what a robot should sound like.
Even in death our countries compete – Japan claims the world’s first death by robot in 1981, when Kenji Urada was pushed into a grinding machine by the hydraulic arm of an incorrectly shut-down robot at Kawasaki Heavy Industries plant. However, American Robert Williams was killed two years earlier in 1979 at Ford Motor Co. Plant when the arm of a one-ton factory robot hit him in the head. We may win historically here, but Japan wins on style – that is some serious Maximum Overdrive-style revenge shit right there.