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The Incredible Electric Eric: Rebuilding a Lost 1920s British Robot

Eric the robot in 1928 (GIF by the author via Science Museum/YouTube)
Eric the robot in 1928 (GIF by the author via Science Museum/YouTube)

By all accounts, the debut of the UK’s first humanoid robot was a startling affair. Before rising on gleaming aluminum legs to give a speech at the 1928 Engineering Model Society exhibition, Eric the robot sat rigidly still before the gathered crowd, his face an inscrutable metal mask with slices for lightbulb eyes and a cavernous mouth.

Robert E. Martin described the scene in a 1928 article for Popular Science Monthly:

The Thing’s enormous size and the stark immobility of his face gave him a really terrifying quality. His lipless, toothless mouth agape, his hollow eyes aslant, he stared into an audience that packed the Royal Horticultural Hall in London. Fairly popeyed, they returned his lifeless gaze. They felt subconsciously that here was some strange symbol of relentless Fate itself.

Captain Richards working on Eric, pictured in Popular Science Monthly (1928) (screenshot by the author via Google Books)
Captain Richards working on Eric, pictured in Popular Science Monthly (1928) (screenshot by the author via Google Books) (click to enlarge)

Yet once he stood and bowed “elaborately,” the “spell was broken” by his “typical educated Englishman” pronunciation, and familiar words of “presiding officers the world over,” assuring the viewers that this was a human-made being under their control, even if the 35,000 volts of electricity powering his movement threw blue sparks from his gaping maw.

Eric was an instant sensation, and toured both Europe and the United States, and then vanished in the 1930s. “An interesting thing about robots is that, although they are large, heavy, solid things, they have always tended to be rather ephemeral,” Ben Russell, lead curator for the upcoming Robots exhibition at London’s Science Museum, told Hyperallergic. “They tend to get cannibalized for spare parts, lost, neglected, forgotten about, or deliberately scrapped. It may be the case that with Eric, he was replaced by a ‘product improved’ version called George, and Eric, as the original, may have been taken to pieces to provide spare parts, or stored away just in case, but there is no way of knowing for sure.”

The Science Museum is currently crowdfunding $50,000 on Kickstarter to rebuild Eric for Robots, planned to open in February of 2017. The exhibition will chronicle 500 years of humanoid history, with over 100 automata artifacts going back to the 16th century. As the UK’s first experiment in modern automaton creation, Eric is planned to take center stage, following a month-long solo show this October. After the exhibition, he will become part of the museum’s permanent collections.

“One of the challenges of the rebuild is that, although Eric’s external appearance is relatively easy to establish from photographs taken during his lifetime, and we can work out some of his movements from the piece of surviving film footage, reverse-engineering what might be inside is more difficult,” Russell explained. There exists an artist’s impression of Eric’s insides, but due to creators Captain Richards and A.H. Reffell being rather secretive about his mechanics, it’s difficult to gauge its accuracy.

GOMSHALL, UNITED KINGDOM - 1928: Captain William Richards and Alan Herbert Reffell have designed and built a kinght-like robot named Eric and able to perform the same tasks as a human being in 1928, in Gomshall, United Kingdom.
Eric the robot (1928) (courtesy Keystone-France/Getty Images)

The museum has enlisted roboticist and artist Giles Walker (of pole-dancing robot fame) to head the rebuild, which should take roughly three months. Eric was constructed in a dawning era of robotic spectacles, which would be highlighted in exhibitions and World’s Fairs of the early 20th century. It was only in 1921 that the word “robot” was coined in Karel Čapek’s 1921 play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots)the “R.U.R.” on Eric’s chest referencing this provenance. Even before Eric, there were robots like the 1927 Mr. Televox from the Westinghouse Corp, whose main skill was answering a telephone, and the remnants from visual culture, including the bumbling bots of early silent films.

Eric the robot opening the 'Model Engineering Exhibition' in London, pictured in Popular Science Monthly (1928) (courtesy Science Museum)
Eric the robot opening the ‘Model Engineering Exhibition’ in London, pictured in Popular Science Monthly (1928) (courtesy Science Museum)

Each of these humanoids was very much a metal man of his time (and despite the seductive Maria in Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, they were on the whole designed as male robots). While Eric was a British “robot in knight’s armour,” Elektro (also by Westinghouse) at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York was a walking, talking, smoking brazen American, calling lady visitors “toots” and traveling with his dog Sparko. Unlike later robots like Thomas Ross’s 1938 maze-solving machine, which looked nothing like a person, these automata were more gimmick than scientific experiment, but they still demonstrated the potential of robotics.

Russell noted that the Science Museum has “rescued a number of relatively recent robots from sheds, basements, forgotten cupboards,” and their preservation often goes overlooked, especially as newer, flashier robots continue to grab headlines (such as the wheeled “Pepper” equipped with an “emotion engine” from SoftBank soon arriving in the United States from Japan).

“Robots have often been ephemeral objects, used and discarded as circumstances dictated, so someone, somewhere, should be taking stock and acquiring examples if possible,” Russell stated. “That’s a good job for us at the Science Museum.”

Rebuild Eric: The UK’s First Robot is funding on Kickstarter through June 16. 

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