Marvels of the Mechanical Man, part one

The following article is being reproduced on this blog in its entirety, but split into three parts. It first appeared in the British magazine Practical Mechanics which was published from October 1933 to August 1963. This article on robotics comes from one of the earliest editions, February 1934. What a long way we have come in 80 years! The numbers in the text refer to footnotes written by me and were not in the original article.


Is the robot a practical possibility of the future?
An Interesting Description of its Possibilities and Methods of Operation.

The mechanical man has been a subject which novelists have exploited to the full. Recent demonstrations of these mechanical creations, Robots or Automatons, forcibly indicate to us that the idea is by no means so fantastic as would at first sight appear. There are many machines capable of doing work today which formerly could only be produced by many human beings. The machines which set the type from which these pages are reproduced are themselves almost uncannily human.

The Horseless Carriage

The motor car, or horseless carriage as it was formerly termed when old Mother Shipton forecast its invention(1), seemed an utter impossibility and was ridiculed universally by the Press of the period. When the motor car was, however, introduced in may surprise many readers to know that one of its earliest forms was that of a metal horse between the shafts of a carriage(2), the internal mechanism operating the metal legs and simulating almost exactly the walking and trotting motion of a horse. There are enormous motor-drive tractors in use in America today, on land where wheeled traffic could not possibly travel, which make use of a striding mechanism somewhat similar in action to a horse’s legs.
So the mechanical man, when it was first introduced, met with the same derisive criticisms and sniggers from the ill-informed, possibly only because of its shape. But because an inventor seeks to imitate the shape of a human being as an enclosure for a particular mechanism it does not make the idea any less practicable. For example, we could make a robot mechanical lighter, whose hand, by pressure of a button, ignites the wick; a perfectly practicable idea. We already use cranes which lift weights in the same way; weighing machines are already in existence, which proclaim, by electrical and mechanical means, the weight of the customer who stands upon its platform.(3)

Modern Inventions Make the Robot Possible

Figure 1 (above) Professor J. Popjie with his mechanical man
seated in an aeroplane, in which the robot actually operated
the dual controls(4), and (right), a robot making a gramophone
record on a portable machine.
The infra-red ray can be used to count with greater accuracy than human beings, as it is already doing in many printing works; it is possible to store speech on a steel tape or a wax record, and we can now by that means virtually listen to the voice of the dead. A man may broadcast in London and the entire world can listen to him. Television is already in operation and is on the threshold of important developments.
It is not such a fantastic notion therefore to concede that some mechanism in the form of a man may combine, in one homogeneous piece of apparatus, all of these modern scientific inventions. And why not? It is a simple mechanical proposition to make a device which walks, for walking machines are over one hundred years old. It is also a simple matter to make arms and hands raise weights; mechanical talking devices are almost child’s play today, and the microphone, which is the electrical counterpart of the human ear, will respond to minute sound energies and set in motion various mechanisms. The only point which arises is whether the Robot need really take on the form of the human frame. “Horseless carriages” do not, excepting in the case mentioned earlier, employ mechanical horses, and it is a moot point whether the shape used for those Robots already produced will survive. Of course, it is spectacular and appeals to the public imagination, but it is not realised that all of the capabilities of the Robot have been performed daily for years past by devices of less appealing, if more practical, contour.
To be continued . . .
2014 Footnotes
(1) It seems that this prediction may well have been invented at a later date. Read more on Wikipedia.
    Carriages without horses shall go,
    And accidents fill the world with woe.
    Around the world thoughts shall fly,
    In the twinkling of an eye.
(Said to predict cars, telephone, internet, satellites, planes amongst other things)
(2) I have tried to find illustrations of this contraption, but have not succeeded.
(3) More on Speak Your Weight machines can be found here.
(4) Professor J. Popjie’s robot was not really a robot at all, but a person disguised as one. Find out all about Popjie’s robot on the excellent Cybernetic Zoo.

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