The word “robot” first appeared in Czech author Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Derived from robota, it means, roughly, “forced labor.” Mechanical humanoids existed before the 20th century, however, and with industrialization and developing technology, the possibilities and subsequent paranoia about robots became a greater part of pop culture.
This is especially true in film, going back to its silent era, before the word robot (or anything else) was spoken on screen. Richard Kaufman wrote this month in an article for Boing Boing that the first fleshed-out robot, so to speak, in film history was Q the Automaton in 1919’s The Master Mystery. The 15-chapter serial starred escape artist Harry Houdini. I say this as a true Houdini fan, but the film is barely watchable. Like most of his attempts at cinema, it is basically a series of badly staged escapes where the villains prefer leaving him alone in straight jackets or chains rather than using the guns in their hands. Nevertheless, it does feature one major attraction, the automaton — “A mechanical figure with a human brain. A weird unconquerable villain. A metal masterpiece that cannot be destroyed” — who is at the center of a confusing heist plot and dispenses an infectious gas that causes “Madagascar madness.”
As Kaufman notes in his article, the bulbous costume, with its shapely hips that are literally a wide barrel, was recreated and showcased at this November’s Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. Click ahead to 7:34 in the film embed below, and you can see the first appearance of the automaton lumbering down a dark hallway with a candelabra, as if sleepwalking through a Gothic horror steampunk fantasy.
Automatons go back centuries in cultural history, such as the supposed chess-playing man-machine the Turk, built in the 1700s. In Jewish folklore there have long been Golems brought to life from mud, while the Greek myth Pygmalion has a sculptor’s statue coming to life. The 19th century saw examples in early science fiction, like the 1868 The Steam Man of the Prairies, about a young boy’s steam-powered invention that is basically a metal gentleman in a top hat with a body built like a cannonball. With these early robots in the imagination, it was only a matter of time before they came to film.
Despina Kakoudaki chronicled much of this history in last year’s Anatomy of a Robot Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People from Rutgers University Press, discussing robots as complex stand-ins for our hopes and fears about science, and as complicated reflections of mankind’s desire to force work and labor on others.
Long before Houdini shot a robot with a gun, there were other robots who could arguably take the title of first on film. A one-reel short based on Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s symbolist book The Future Eve was made in 1896 and tells the story of a man who makes a robot fiancé for his friend when his human lover proves too emotionally troublesome. Then in 1897, Georges Méliès made Gugusse and the Automaton, which featured a clown interacting with an automaton. Unfortunately, the film has been lost, a blow to cinematic history that surely spared many children some surreal nightmares. Then there was 1917’s A Clever Dummy, which includes an automaton designed for vaudeville, and 1921’s The Mechanical Man, an Italian film that culminates with a duel between an criminal robot and his benevolent double. The Robots in Film list at AMC has even more early robot cameos, many of which consisted of actors clad in awkward assemblages of mechanical-looking parts moving jerkily.
Then there was the robot that changed it all, inspiring generations of beautiful and dangerous automatons to follow. In Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, a “Maschinenmensch” (“Machine-Human”) nicknamed Maria moves with a sleek, metal body designed with sharp angles as if she stepped out of an Art Deco frieze. Her ability to pass as human, and her nearly human but still machine form, would influence everything from Battlestar Galactica‘s Cylons to C-3PO in Star Wars. The androids, automatons, and mechanical men of silent cinema still shape how we view the future of robots today.
Read more about the Q automaton in The Master Mystery (1919) starring Houdini at Boing Boing.