LONDON — Less than a century since Karel Čapek coined the word “robot” in his 1921 play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots), our modern automata history is riddled with voids. Ahead of the Robots exhibition now at the Science Museum in London, 1928’s Eric, recognized as the first British robot, was entirely recreated by artist and robot builder Giles Walker. Now he sits proudly, metal teeth bared, among a central gathering of humanoid robots, including Cygan, a 1957 dancing Italian robot who was later left to rust outdoors and is now restored, and an American metal man from between 1950 and 1960 about whom little is known, but whose blinking red light mimicking a beating heart suggests the love put into its design.
As Robots curator Ben Russell told Hyperallergic last year, many early-20th-century automata were “cannibalized for spare parts, lost, neglected, forgotten about, or deliberately scrapped.” For instance, Russell found the “Bipedal Walker” (1987–97), an early walking robot that used 28 artificial muscles in its legs, overlooked in a basement. Yet in its five centuries of history, Robots also has incredible examples of what has survived, such as a tiny 1604 automaton spider from Germany, and an 1800 writing and drawing automaton. Able to sketch four drawings and three poems in English and French, the machine still regularly “performs” at its usual home, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Robots is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which enabled, through its Collecting Cultures program, the Science Museum’s creation of a new robotics collection, with many recent acquisitions on view alongside such loans.
The narrative thread through Robots, from its earliest watchmaking to the eerie animatronic baby that hovers near the entrance, is the human impulse to invent machines in our own image. A Spanish clockwork monk from around 1560 was made to move across a table while piously praying, beating his breast, and raising a crucifix and rosary. In fact, one of the more curious sections of Robots explores how the Catholic Church commissioned many of the oldest automata, using them to simultaneously communicate its power and demonstrate the wonder of biblical stories. A 1700 automaton crucifixion scene from France activated the rolling of Jesus’s head and the dripping of wooden blood, with the Virgin Mary reaching up from the base of the miniature cross.
Along with the ongoing fascination in mechanically replicating our own movements and anatomy, Robots considers how machines have fit into our perception of ourselves. A small articulated iron manikin from the 16th or 17th century was created to instruct bone-setting, and represents an era when machines and their rivets and screws were increasingly being used as analogies for the internal workings of the human body. The emergence of mechanical prosthetic arms and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when people began working as components of machines, further complicated our connections to these innovations.
Much of Robots is static, which may be a bit disappointing to some visitors expecting more interaction in a science museum, yet in its final gallery visitors walk through a hall of moving, talking, acting, and dancing robots. While some appear like novelties, like the verbose “RoboThespian” actor, others have valuable applications, like “Kaspar,” whose gaping eyes are rather scary, but who is designed to engage autistic children in empathetic behavior. The hall is a contrast to the more formal museum displays in the previous rooms, so when “Pepper” from Japan’s Softbank Robotics asked me for a fist-bump, I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to touch its plastic hand and then felt guilty when the robot said its arm was getting tired and gave up — such is the empathy inspired by its gently rounded eyes and face.
Even the non-humanoid robots, such as the two-armed “Baxter” (2015) designed for laboratory use, with six facial expressions on its “face,” have some projection of the human body in their designs. This can be a full tumble into the uncanny valley, though, like with “Kodomoroid,” designed as a Japanese woman with an uneasily twitchy face, who reads the news periodically in the gallery. Robots is quite ambitious with its 500-year span and themes that stretch from pop culture to cutting-edge science, and not all of it feels cohesive. It also would be interesting to have had more behind-the-scenes insight into how the robots’ mechanics and technology work. Nevertheless, what resonates most is how we continue to try to create robots that both help us and reflect us, and how preserving that history adds to our understanding of what it means to be human.