In the series I Made a Big Mistake, PopSci explores mishaps and misunderstandings, in all their shame and glory.
In Hollywood, robots have come in many shapes and sizes. There’s the classic, corrugated-tubing-limbed Robot from the television series Lost In Space (1965); the clunky C-3PO and cute R2-D2, the Star Wars (1977) duo; the tough Terminator from The Terminator (1984) played by Arnold Schwarzenegger; the mischievous Johnny 5 from Short Circuit (1986); the kind-hearted, ill-fated Sonny in I, Robot (2004); and WALL-E (2008), the endearing trash-collecting robot. Robot-reality, however, still lags behind robot-fiction by quite a bit. Even Elon Musk’s October 2022 debut of Optimus—a distinctly masculine humanoid-frame robot prototype built by Tesla that, for the first time, wobbled along sans cables—failed to wow critics, who compared it to decades-old Japanese robotics and noted that it lacked any differentiating capabilities.
And yet, automatons—self-propelled machines—are not new. More than two millennia ago, Archytas, an inventor from ancient Greece, built a pulley-activated wooden dove, capable of flapping its wings and flying a very short distance (a puff of air triggered a counterweight that set the bird in motion). Around the 12th century, Al-Jazari, a prolific Muslim inventor, built a panoply of automatons, including a water-powered mechanical orchestra—a harpist, a flutist, and two drummers—that rowed around a lake by means of mechanical oarsmen. Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks are peppered with detailed sketches of various automatons, including a mechanical knight capable of sitting up, waving its arms, and moving its head and purportedly debuted in 1495. But it was Czech playwright Karel Čapek in his 1920 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), who first coined the phrase “robot” as a distinct category of automaton. Robot comes from the Czech, robota, which means forced labor. As Popular Science editor, Robert E. Martin, wrote in December 1928, a robot is a “working automaton,” built to serve humans. Isaac Asimov enshrined Čapek’s forced-labor concept in his three laws of robotics, which first appeared in 1942 in his short story “Runaround.”
Predicting the future is fraught with peril, especially for the science writer enthralled by the promise of a new technology. But that hasn’t stopped Popular Science writers and editors from trying. Past issues are peppered with stories of robots ready to take the world by storm. And yet, our domestic lives are still relatively robot free. (Factory automation is another story.) That’s because we underestimate just how sophisticated humans can be, taking on menial tasks with ease, like sorting and folding laundry. Even in the 21st century, service and domestic robots disappoint: design-challenged, single-purpose machines, like the pancake-shaped vacuums that knock about our living rooms. Advances in machine learning may finally add some agility and real-world adaptability to the next generation of robots, but until we get there (if we get there), a look back at some of the stranger robotic inventions, shaped by the miscalculations and misguided visions of their human inventors, might inform the future.
Robots for hire
Looking for “live” entertainment to punctuate a party, banquet, or convention? Renting out robot entertainers may have roots as far back as 1940, according to a Popular Science story that described the star-studded life of Clarence the robot. Clarence, who resembled a supersized Tinman, could walk, talk, gesture with his arms, and “perform other feats.” More than eight decades later, however, robot entertainers are only slightly more sophisticated than their 1940s ancestor, even if they do have sleeker forms. For instance, Disney deploys talking, arm-waving, wing-flapping robots to animate rides, but they’re still pre-programmed to perform a limited range of activities. Chuck E. Cheese, which made a name for itself decades ago by fusing high-tech entertainment with the dining experience, has been phasing out its once-popular animatronics. Pre-programmed, stiff-gestured animal robots seem to have lost their charm for kiddos. They still can’t dance, twirl, or shake their robot booties. Not until Blade Runner-style androids hit the market will robot entertainment be worth the ticket price.
Animatronics that smoke, drink, and—moo
In May 1933, Popular Science previewed the dawn of animatronics, covering a prototype bound for the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. The beast in question was not prehistoric, did not stalk its prey, and had no teeth to bare, but it could moo, wink its eyes, chew its cud, and even squirt a glassful of milk. The robotic cow may have been World’s Fair-worthy in 1933, but by 1935, Brooklyn inventor Milton Tenenbaum upped the stakes when he introduced a life-like mechanical dummy that, according to Popular Science, was known for “singing, smoking, drinking, and holding an animated conversation.” Tenenbaum proposed using such robots for “animated movie cartoons.” Although Hollywood was slow to adopt mooing cows and smoking dummies, Tenenbaum may have been crystal-balling the animatronics industry that eventually propelled blockbuster films like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Aliens. Alas, with the advent of AI-generated movies, like Waymark’s The Frost, released in March 2023, animatronic props may be doomed to extinction.
The robot mailman
In October 1976, Popular Science saw the automated future of office mail delivery, declaring that the “Mailmobile is catching on.” Mailmobiles were (past tense) automated office mail carts that followed “a fluorescent chemical that can be sprayed without harm on most floor surfaces.” Later models used laser-guidance systems to navigate office floors. Mailmobiles were likely doomed by the advent of email, not to mention the limitations of their singular purpose. But in their heyday they were loved by their human office workers, who bestowed them with nicknames like Ivan, Igor, and Blue-eyes. A Mailmobile even played a cinematic role in the FX series, The Americans. Despite being shuttered in 2016 by their manufacturer, Dematic, (the original manufacturer was Lear Siegler, who also made Lear jets), there’s no denying their impressive four decade run. Of course, the United States Postal Service employs automation to process mail, including computer vision and sophisticated sorting machines, but you’re not likely to see your mail delivered by a self-driving mail mobile anytime soon.
Lawn chair mowers
Suburban homeowners would probably part with a hefty sum for a lawn-mowing robot that really works. Today’s generation of wireless automated grass-cutters may be a bit easier to operate than the tethered type that Popular Science described in April 1954, but they’re still sub-par when it comes to navigating the average lawn, including steep grades, rough turf, and irregular geometries. In other words, more than a half century after their debut, the heart-stopping price tags on robot lawn mowers are not likely to appeal to most homeowners. Sorry suburbanites—lawn-chair mowing is still a thing of the future.
It was in the early 1980s that companies began to roll out what Popular Science dubbed personal robots in the May 1983 issue. With names like B.O.B, HERO, RB5X, and ITSABOX for their nascent machines, the fledgling companies had set their sights on the domestic service market. According to one of the inventors, however, there was a big catch: “Robots can do an enormous number of things. But right now they can’t do things that require a great deal of mechanical or cognitive ability.” That ruled out just about everything on the home front, except, according to the inventors and, by extension, Popular Science, “entertaining guests and teaching children.” Ahem. Teaching children doesn’t require a great deal of cognitive ability? Go tell that to a teacher. Gaffes aside, fast forward four decades and, with the capabilities of large language models demonstrated by applications like Open AI’s ChatGPT, we might be on the cusp of building robots with just enough cognitive ability to somewhat augment the human learning experience (if they ever learn to get the facts right). As for robots that can reliably fold laundry and cook dinner while you’re at work? Don’t hold your breath.