Eric opens the Model Engineering Exhibition (1928)

The following report is taken from The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, dated Tuesday 18th September 1928. It is nice to see such an early newspaper report on robotics that is not sensationalised in any way.

This very British robot, by the name of Eric, who has been featured on these pages before, appears in a rare silent newsreel report in the film clip shown at the foot of this page. The film was taken at the Model Engineering Exhibition in London in 1928, the event referred to in the story which follows.

What caused Eric’s invention, according to the YouTube page which hosts the film clip, was the need of an important person to take the place of the Duke of York in opening the Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers, in London. As shown in the film, Eric arose, bowed, looked to the right, to the left, and, with appropriate gestures, proceeded to give a four minute opening address.

THE ROBOT

“The Robot who on Saturday opened the Model Engineering Exhibition in London has attracted deserved attention as a highly ingenious piece of mechanism. There is something very eerie and impressive in the idea of a man of tin obeying spoken instructions, and even himself delivering a speech. But the Robot is no more than a piece of ingenious mechanism, and his inventor seems very wisely not to have attempted to conceal the fairly obvious fact that the Robot’s actions are under direct human control, apparently exercised over the length of an electric cable. A machine of this sort does not differ in kind from a motor-car, or any other familiar piece of machinery, and the American Robot, who, according to recent reports, can be controlled solely through variations in the pitch of the operator’s voice represents no more than a further refinement of a similar mechanical principle. The kind of Robot imagined by inventors in pre-scientific days was of quite a different order.

“These inventors set out, not to construct a mechanical simulation of life, but to create a physical form capable of attracting to itself the actual life-energy manifested in human beings. Stories such as that of Frankenstein’s monster show that the dangers of this process were fully realised, and we have no reason to suppose that the faintest success ever attended any experiments connected with it. From the scientific point of view, however, the possibilities of such a process on a very much smaller scale have always been appreciated, and it is in this direction that the work of Professor A. V. Hill, which received misleadingly spectacular advertisement at the British Association in Glasgow, seems to lie.

“Professor Hill, so far as can be gathered, is endeavouring to analyse the precise chemical qualities which enable a living cell to carry on that subtle give-and-take of energy in which its life depends. Should his work succeed he would be able, one supposes, to lay down as a proved fact that the capacity of living matter for such interchanges of energy depends on a definable chemical constitution, itself analysable into a certain arrangement of atoms within the molecule of the living substance. From this point a further conceivable step might enable the chemist to construct in his laboratory molecules fulfilling the required conditions, and he would then expect to find that these molecules, once constructed, forthwith assumed a living character. Here, on a minute scale, would be the germ of a genuine laboratory man, differing in kind from the most elaborate mechanical Robot ever to be invented. We need not pause to emphasise the scarcely conceivable step from the construction of a living molecule to the construction of a living man. The point that seems to be worth noting is that the chemist who produced a living molecule would not, in any strict sense, be creating life. He would simply have established the conditions necessary for the manifestation of life energy in a material form. His achievement would be of the utmost scientific interest and importance, but it would not make him master of life and death. Life itself would remain indefinable and uncreatable – a pure energy that animates material forms only to depart again from them, obeying a purpose which is never likely to be interpreted in the language of human beings who depend on its material manifestations for their own existence.”

You can read a very detailed obituary, describing Professor Hill’s life and work here.

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