Archive Gallery: 137 Years of Robotic Fascination

The mailmobile, the cigarette-smoking mechanical man, Al Capone's would-be robot army and more retro robots from PopSci's archives

We've all heard of Roombas, robot submarines, and creepy humanoid robots, but have you ever heard of Elektro, the cigarette-smoking robot from the 1939 World's Fair, or the Budweiser-fetching Omnibot 2000 from 1986? Wrapping up National Robotics Week, we've combed our archives for a primer on the past century's most amazing robots.

Granted, not all of them survived the passage of time and modern technology, but we're holding out for engineers to revive Omnibot 2000, the Scotch-pouring mechanical butler; and Snail, which uses computerized directions to put out fires around the city. Click through our gallery to check out the cutest, creepiest, and most dangerous 'bots from back in the day.

Mechanical Men are our New Slaves: December 1928
"Robots in real action! Robots lighting your lamps and heating your wife's electric iron and oven! Would you have believed it ten, or even five years ago?" People living in the 1920s envisioned a future where "amazing automatons" could rid mankind of tedium and hard labor. In this issue of the magazine, we covered robots that made speeches, answered telephones, and controlled street traffic while calling them "Mechanical Men -- Our New Slaves" Read the full story in "Mechanical Men Walk and Talk"
Horse of Steel: April 1933
An Italian inventor surmised that his gasoline-powered mechanical horse could transport children across roads and fields. Read the full story in "Horse of Steel Runs Across Fields"
Elektro and Sparko : August 1949
Elektro, a seven-foot-tall, 260-pound aluminum robot, could walk, speak 77 words, count to 10, and even smoke cigarettes. His dog, Sparko, could also perform tricks. Read the full story in "You Say It, Robot Does It"
Cowbot: May 1933
Messmore and Damon, a New York-based workshop specializing in in mechanical animals, exhibited their lifelike electronic cow at the World's Fair in 1933. Read the full story in "Robot Cow Moos and Gives Milk"
He Will Also Shoot You: January 1935
We can only wonder why the editors left out the most interesting feature of Professor Harry May's robot from this story's head -- that is, in addition to obeying simple orders, like "stand up," the robot could also fire blank cartridges from a pistol. According to the machine's creator, it also had an affinity for playing "strange pranks" on people. The magazine reported: "Once it mauled an assistant and on another occasion it shot unexpectedly at its creator, as if endowed with the malevolence of a mechanical monster of fiction." Read the full story in "Mechanical Man Hears and Speaks"
Mechanical Man Sings, Smokes and Drinks: October 1935
"So realistic in appearance is this mechanical man that it is hard to pick him out at a casual glance." Supposedly, this robot's built-in electric motors enabled it to conduct "animated conversations" while appearing to puff a lighted pipe. Read the full story in "Lifelike Robot Speaks, Smokes, and Drinks"
Yodeling Radio Man: March 1939
Swiss inventor August Huber's seven-foot-tall "radio man" could obey orders transmitted by radio waves. Read the full story in "Radio Man Walks, Talks and Yodels"
Robot Golfer: Oct 1951
Clifford H. Landis of Chicago designed his robot to demonstrate the perfect golf swing. The machine was powered by a motor in its base. Read the full story in "Robot Golfer Never Misses"
Garco Does Your Chores: December 1953
Harvey Chapman, an engineer from Los Angeles, built Garco, a robot that could lift simple objects, out of discarded airplane parts. What started out as a garage project became an ambitious endeavor to create a robot that could not only do household chores, but could also perform "dangerous duties" like handling toxic bacteria. Chapman also surmised that future models could one day pilot the first rocket to the moon. Read the full story in "Plug-In Workman Built in 90 Days"
Al Capone's Bulletproof Robot Army: August 1959
In August 1958, we featured a story on robot-like bulletproof armor for the Detroit police. A year later, the Russian media picked up the story, retitling it "Robot is Bulletproof," and claimed that American engineers were selling the equipment to Al Capone and the KKK. Wild! Read the full story in "Russian Propaganda Twists Popular Science Story"
Mobot, the "Man-Substitute": September 1960
The remote-controlled "Mobot," created by none other than the the Hughes Aircraft Company, was designed to handle irradiated materials. Despite the crudeness of its task, Mobot apparently demonstrated artistic grace. We reported, "Like a Balinese dancer, Mobot is fantastically dextrous with arms and hands." Read the full story in "Marvelous Mobot Will Do Work Too Hot for Man"
Robot Rescues H-Bomb Victims: May 1962
The Beetle, which weighed 170,0000 pounds and was purchased by the Air Force for $1.5 million, was the first in a line of robots designed to for fighting in irradiated areas. The machine's insides included a periscope, binoculars, and air conditioner, an ash tray, and a lighter for the operator's comfort. Read the full story in "World's Biggest Robot"
Unimate Remembers Commands: August 1962
Unimate, the first all-purpose industrial robot, could do everything from loading a conveyer, to playing the xylophone, to pouring coffee. Unlike its predecessors, Unimate needed no programmers -- magnetized metal strips enabled it to record and perform simple commands. Read the full story in "Teachable Robot Can Remember 200 Commands"
NASA's Electric Dummies: May 1967
NASA's "articulated dummies," which could replicate 35 basic human movements, were built to measure the force imposed on astronauts by their pressurized space suits. After dressing the dummy in a space suit, the operator would instruct it to move its limbs, and thus be able to test how much torque the movement required. Read the full story in "Robot Flexes 35 Joints to Test Space Suits"
The Mailmobile: October 1976
The Mailmobile, a robot mail cart popular in New York's Citibanks, followed a "a fluorescent chemical path" that glowed under the machine's ultraviolet light. We reported that while Citibank's employees were initially wary of the Mailmobile, "but once the carts were operating, people found that fears of being run down by a mad robot were groundless." Stopping and starting the cart were as easy as touching red and green strips along its sides. Read the full story in "Robot Mailman Rolls on a Tight Schedule"
Robo-Subs: December 1981
Operators dubbed the red robot pictured left, called RCV-225, the "flying eyeball." While underwater, RCV-225 would send live TV pictures to the ship before disintegrating into the deep ocean currents. Now that couldn't have been good for the environment.... Read the full story in "Robot Subs Trouble-Shoot the Deep"
Androids from the '80's: May 1983
We covered a series of personal robots popular in the 1980's, including Androbot Inc.'s B.O.B., which held three megabytes of memory. At that point, robots could talk, measure distances, talk, and pick up objects, but people acknowledged that these tasks were still too minimal to serve a practical purpose in the home. They speculated correctly that with a little more research, personal robots could one day function as vacuums. Read the full story in "Computerized Personal Robots -- They Move, Talk, Think, and Teach You Robotics"
Firefighting Snail: November 1983
Engineers imagined that Snail, a 600-lb steel robot developed by the Scottsdale, Arizona Rural-Metro Fire Department, could someday go into mass production to help firefighters battle blazes in hard-to-reach areas. Read the full story in "Now Computers and Robots Join the Fight Against Fire"
Mechanical Spiders: September 1984
Researchers struggled to engineer properly coordinated walking robots until they thought of installing on-board microprocessors that controlled each leg. Unlike other walking machines, Odex I (pictured left) followed an algorithm that kept its legs from knocking into each other while moving. Read the full story in "Engineering the New Breed of Walking Machines"
Omnibot: October 1984
Somewhere between 1980 and 1984, personal robots began to get cute. For only $299, you could employ Japan's Omnibot as your battery-operated butler, complete with a serving tray. Read the full story in "Brainy Robot that Doesn't Cost a Bundle"
Omnibot 2000: May 1986
Apparently, Omnibot was such a huge hit at parties that its inventors gave it a upgrade. Omnibot 2000 was not only capable of wheeling around an hors d'oeuvres tray, but it could pour you drinks while "singing your favorite aria." Read the full story in "Omnibot Grows Up"