Marvels of the Mechanical Man, part three

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.

How the Robot Speaks

The method of providing speech for the mechanical man is actually quite simple, and the gramophone principle is employed in one form or another. In a simple Robot, a record may be made to rotate when the motor is switched on, and an electric sound-box, or pick-up, traversing the record can, through a suitable amplifier, reproduce the recorded sounds through the medium of the loudspeaker in the Robot’s head. Obviously, the amount of material which can be accommodated on a record is not very great, and, furthermore, if the Robot is to answer any question put to it, the pick-up has to be deposited on the sound track of the record at a spot delivering a suitable reply. With one record only, the number of questions which can be replied to is limited. However, the sound-on-film method employed in the talkie installations provides a very much greater scope, and the only difficulty is found in providing sufficient relays to enable the film to be drawn through the “gate” to the various positions in order to deliver the correct speech. This means that the Robot, as probably many people have now found out, can only reply to a set number of questions, and for exhibition purposes these take the nature of the dates of well-known events, the time of day, the Robot’s name, etc. So far, the Robot’s delivery of speech is no more remarkable than the well-known weighing-machines which are now seen all over the country, and which tell you your weight when you stand on the platform and place a coin in the slot. The principal novelty rests in the manner in which the replied are given to questions asked by spectators. There is more actual novelty than mystery in this, however, when it is remembered that the question, in the majority of cases, may be given in any language, or even in nonsensical gibberish, provided the intonation follows certain predetermined lines.
Fig. 3. – A schematic diagram of a typical robot system.
When the microphone circuit is energised the
armature (acting as a ratchet) is caused to rotate the
toothed wheel and thence the sprocket
or other mechanism.

A very ingenious toy which is now obtainable will assist in explaining this little mystery. Very popular some years ago in America, and introduced to this country some time ago, was a toy consisting of a small kennel mounted on a base, the whole being constructed from ordinary tin-plate. Standing just inside the kennel is a ferocious-looking bulldog. Over the kennel entrance is printed in large letters the name of the dog, for instance, Fido. When you stand close to the kennel and call out “Fido,” the dog jumps right out of the kennel, sliding along the tin base. At first this seems remarkable, until, perchance, you are demonstrating the toy to a friend and happen to speak rather loudly near the kennel and are surprised to see the dog jump out. Perhaps after a little experimenting you will find that the dog will come out if you call out “Tin-tacks” or any other word. With the majority of Robots, “How old are you?” will elicit the reply, “Three years” or any other pre-arranged period, but this same reply would be given if you asked, “How bold are you?” The microphone receives the vibrations of the question, and a pre-selector, designed to operate somewhat after the manner of the automatic telephone, actuated generally by an ordinary electric relay, rotates the sound film, or recording disc, until the desired answer is brought into position, and the amplifier is then brought into action to deliver the reply. Fig. 3 shows a schematic lay-out of a microphone, relay, sound film arrangement. In this diagram, if the number “One” is spoken into the microphone, or, in other words, a single impulse is received, the relay is operated during the course of which the arm of the relay bears against one of the teeth of the cogged wheel, A, and so rotates the sprocket wheel and turns the film through a certain movement. It will be appreciated, of course, that instead of film the relay could switch in an electric motor for a certain period, etc. Two impulses at the microphone circuit would rotate the toothed wheel two sections and so on.

Fig. 4. – Here is an inventor helping the robot
to a pipe of tobacco.
The mechanical man can be made to do
almost everything (except think) by
pre-arrangement. It can talk,
walk, answer questions, etc.
The enormous weight of the robot
(it is 9 feet high) can be gauged
from this picture.

The light-sensitive device bearing this name has already been explained in these pages, and by including one of these cells in the head of the Robot it is possible to arrange that anyone passing in front of it will bring some piece of mechanism into action and either make the Robot call out or even cause him to operate some external apparatus. Thus a bell may be placed at the side of the Robot, and a person adopting the role of a burglar may walk past the Robot, whereupon he will pick up and ring the bell. The General Electric Company of America have devoted considerable money and time to the design of Robots for commercial purposes, and although these have not been built in human form (as they are for utility and not exhibition purposes) they may be found fulfilling many functions in the G.E.C. works. Such routine jobs as opening up the works at a given hour (a time-operated device), blowing the cease-work hooter, starting up machinery, cutting off electric power in the event of a fault developing in a machine, sounding a fire alarm in the event of fire (a temperature-operated device), and many similar schemes are actual practical examples of Robots.


One thought on “Marvels of the Mechanical Man, part three

  1. Pingback: Robot shoots inventor (Brighton, UK, 1932) - New Robot Club

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