Marvels of the Mechanical Man, part two

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.

A Robot, in whatever form it ultimately is produced, can be made to do practically everything but think. This is a mechanical age, and it would be idle to deny that the tendency is more and more to make use of mechanical appliances to do work formerly executed by human beings. The man power of the world is comparatively small; the entire population of the world could be accommodated in a box having sides only half a mile in length.(1) Our physical strength is growing less, for the increasing use of mechanical contrivances for travel is gradually causing us to lose the use of our legs. Our mental power is increasing. It is not absurd, hence, to conjecture of a time when man has become so weak that he will scarcely be able to move, and will be absolutely dependent upon some form of Robot for his existence. The idea has been exploited in a play, which had as its theme the entire conquest of mind over matter, but in the end matter predominated and killed the inventor!
Eric the 1928 robot

Apparatus Employed

At various times during the past year or so a number of Robots have toured this country, and in most cases the principles have been very similar, although differently adapted. Principally to attract attention and appeal to the man-in-the-street, the exhibition Robot is always built up in a form similar to a human being, that is, with a body, head and limbs. Furthermore, the head is furnished with “eyes”, “mouth” and “ears.” In some cases the “eyes” are formed by lamps, which in the case of one well-known Robot (Eric)(2) light up as soon as he hears a question put to him. In most cases one or both of the ears are fitted with small microphones, and the mouth is simply the camouflaged opening of a good loud-speaker of the same type as is used in the majority of home radio sets. To add to the illusion, the mouth is invariably made to move as speech is emitted. Sounds received by the microphones are made to operate relays which, according to the type of sound, give rise eventually to movement or cause the object to “speak.” Dealing first with movement, the generally adopted methods employed are as described in the following paragraphs.

How the Robot stands up

Fig. 2. – How the robot stands up. Note the small wire cable
passing round pulleys. This is fixed to the foot
and so pulls up the body when wound round
the motor-operated drum.

Fig. 2 gives a diagrammatic section of the leg and lower body portion of a Robot. It must be emphasised that this is not necessarily complete, but is a simplified movement, and in the best exhibition models the principle of “lazy” pulleys is carried much further in order to avoid all risk of the Robot collapsing with consequent damage to the delicate apparatus enclosed in the body. The foot is fixed to the floor or base of the pedestal upon which the Robot sits. The casing of foot and low portion of the limb is continuous, so that this portion is quite rigid. At the knee, the upper portion of the leg, or thigh, is pivoted, and a further pivot is fitted between thigh and trunk. When the motor winds up the thin wire cable the lower end, being fixed, causes the body to rise as tension is put on to the wire. Upon reversing the movement with a suitable clutch to avoid the too sudden running out of the cable, the body is lowered, and through the medium of the pivots the legs fold back, giving a perfect sitting movement. The arms are moved in a similar manner, and it is only a matter of fitting a sufficiently large number of motors to enable the Robot to move independently its hands, ears, head, etc. It will generally be found that the head only rotates, a forward and backward movement being an unnecessary complication.

To be continued . . .

2014 Footnotes
(1) In 1930 the population of the world was estimated to be approximately two billion (2,070,000,000) – Wikipedia. This figure is significantly less than the estimates for population today of seven billion – interesting link! According to this web page, seven billion people would need an area of 251 square miles if given just one square foot each. I’m not sure what size box that would be!

(2) Full information can be found out about “Eric” the robot on the fantastic where there is also a short archive film clip of Eric. 

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