A Brief History Of The First Robots To Appear In Fiction

Robots are so common in today's stories as to be almost ubiquitous. Whether we're talking killer robots, robot swarms, sentient robots, robots with human emotions, or even human/robot hybrids, we've seen them all. But when did the very first robots show up in our stories?

Despina Kakoudaki joined us today to take our questions about the history of robots in our stories, including one on just how far back the earliest instance of robots appearing in a written story went.

"It depends," Kakoudaki explained, "if you mean robots robots, or if you mean all the related figures that kind of feel like they are precursors of robots as we know them today":

Robots as we know them, more or less, emerge in the 1920s and they are really successful immediately, and worldwide. Karel Capek's play RUR (Rossum's Universal Robots) introduced the word Robot (from the Czech robota which means forced labor or drudgery, and used capitalized in the play), and also presented some of the basics we recognize now: the Robots are designed as artificial servants, they are human-like (closer to what we consider androids) but they have stilted body language, they rebel and run amok and take over the world—but they don't know how to create more Robots. And it goes on from there. But the reason the Robots of RUR are so successful is partly that such a figure is both new and recognizable, and in the 1920s a lot of people quickly use the figure of the robot to criticize modern life, modern technology, dehumanization, and industrialization. A great short satirical piece called The Iron Man and the Tin Woman, by Stephen Leacock, published in 1929 for example, has robots doing everything for their owners, including playing golf, showing up for meetings, and delivering marriage proposals. My sense is that the Robots of RUR come at the right time, they embody a range of fears and a critique of technology and industrialization and capitalism that was going on in the 1900s and 1910s, and also embody the trauma of World War I, since many of the Robots of the play are used for mechanical armies. And because the Robots make such modern sense, they allow us to then recognize other figures as precursors: the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz, mechanical men in some early films, automata in the 18th and 19th centuries, and so on, going back to Frankenstein and to stories about Golems and medieval and early modern technologies.