When I was a kid, robots were all the rage. Before the digital age, before the time of personal computers, they had a kind of mystique about them.
This was encouraged by the romanticisation of robots on screen as either heroes or villains. The loyal bodyguard-type robot in the 1960s series Lost in Space, which I saw in endless repeats in the 1970s, was endearing and long-suffering, as Dr Smith referred to him variously as a “Neanderthal ninny”, a “blithering booby”, a “nickel-plated Nincompoop”, a “tintinnabulating tin can” and many more sensational insults (you can see more of them here).
On the other hand, the robot-like daleks in Dr Who were just about the scariest things ever to me as a child. This is one of the earliest TV series I remember—and I didn’t even watch it. In fact, I refused to watch it with Dad, so horrified was I by it and everything about it—even the opening music. In the middle of the night, I sometimes awoke, imagining a dalek was coming to get me, screaming “Exterminate! EXTERMINATE!” as it came inescapably closer. Interestingly, although the daleks appeared to be robots, they were actually supposed to be cyborgs, that is a biological entity enclosed by a protective metal shell. Whatever—to me, they were robots.
Then there was the demonic H.A.L. 9000 in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose any more. Goodbye”), which I didn’t see until the 1980s. Today in 2013, H.A.L.’s most chilling lines are featured on a phone app I have.
We imagined, in the 1970s, that by the year 2000, real robots would be attending to our every need. Robot servants would be cooking and cleaning for us, so we were free to go off to school or work in our personal flying car. Blame The Jetsons for that one!
I was reminded of “the robot age” of the mid-to-late 20th century yesterday, when I visited my mother. I happened to go into her spare room, where she stores toys from her three children’s youths. I spotted the robot pictured above, and it brought back memories of long ago. This one belonged to my late brother Phillip, and came complete with flashing lights and battery-powered action.
While researching this story, I came across The Old Robots Web Site, dedicated to the first wave of robotics. It includes an impressive array of “educational and personal robots” from the 1940s-90s, which you can see here. On this website, I discovered that the robot at my mum’s house is a Space Robo from 1969, made in Japan by Tomy, and part of the “Lighted Magic Dial” series.
We were living in England then, but Dad had been on a business trip to New York, and I think it was probably there that he bought the Space Robo, which is now, apparently, a rare collector’s item. I wish we had kept the box!