Rise of the Robots: A Brief History of Robots in Science Fiction

"The world of the future will be an even more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence, not a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves." 
- Norbert Wiener, "The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society"

[Photo credit: Fred Mcleod Wilcox]

The repertoire of the modern robot runs the gamut from assembling cars and producing circuit boards in factories, to even assisting in laparoscopic surgery. While we are not quite at that point yet, it may not be far-fetched to imagine a world where robots have ubiquitously replaced humans in performing tasks for optimal efficiency. 

The Museum has three resident robots of its own: AEDI, who greets our guests, MIMO, whose sensors detect obstacles (i.e. museum guests) in its way and avoids them accordingly, and KAL, a robot constructed from recycled parts and who also informs our guests about environmental sustainability. They were recently featured in a Rappler article, and were shown alongside other robots such as ASIMO and MAC

 From L-R: MIMO, AEDI, and KAL. 

The field of robotics is also a steadily growing one, and while the idea of making your own robot may seem intimidating, there are relatively simple ways with which even children can get their hands dirty with crafting their own versions of artificial intelligence. 

But in what direction can artificial intelligence proceed? Scientists and engineers have also pondered on the question for decades; ethics will naturally enter the equation as the behavior of robots becomes more and more sophisticated. Science fiction writer and computer scientist Vernor Vinge even predicted in 1993 that computers and robots would eventually outsmart humans. Fiction writers have also used these questions as the premise for many stories in science fiction, even long before the modern era. 

In this 3-part series, we will travel through time and take a short look at the history of speculation on robots in science fiction: where we've been, where we are, and where it might take us.

The Precursors

Long before the word "robot" was invented, the ideas of mechanical or artificial men had already been in our ancestors' consciousness. Early ideas of robots or automata possibly drew inspirations from very early writings and figures in mythology, who were described as anthropomorphic and crafted from stone or metal. 

Talos (The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius, 3rd century BCE)

"Now in all the rest of his body and limbs was he fashioned of bronze and invulnerable; but beneath the sinew by his ankle was a blood-red vein; and this, with its issues of life and death, was covered by a thin skin." 

[Photo credit: Sergio Santos, CG Society website]

Described in the Argonautica as a giant man of bronze forged by the smith Hephaestus, Talos is tasked with patrolling the island of Crete, and fending off pirates. 

However, he is still partially organic, as is shown in the description of a single blood vessel that runs from his neck down to his ankle. Much like with Achilles and his heel, the vein of Talos is his weakness, and he dies in the story from exsanguination. 

The Golem1 2

[Photo credit: Superpower Wiki website]

A figure originating from Jewish folklore, a golem is sculpted from clay, mud or stone and takes on a human's shape. Golems are not intelligent, however, and need to be 'activated' by incantations or rituals such as writing a Shem on a piece of paper, which is then placed inside the head or the mouth of the golem. 

A common theme in stories featuring golems draws parallels to stories featuring robots: golems are usually obedient to their creators, but some stories describe the golem developing hubris, and rebelling against their masters. 

The Sandman (The Sandman by E.T.A. Hoffman, 1816)

"...she appears singularly stiff and soulless...Her pace is strangely regular, every movement seems to depend on some wound-up clockwork. Her playing and her singing keep the same unpleasantly correct and spiritless time as a musical box, and the same may be said of her dancing...She seems to act like a living being, and yet has some strange peculiarity of her own."

[Photo credit: The Sandmen blog]

In ETA Hoffman's short story, the main character Nathaniel falls in love with the daughter of one of his university professors. While she is beautiful and elegant, Olimpia speaks very little, only responding to conversations with "Ah!". She is also often motionless for long periods of time. The people around her find this disconcerting, and it is eventually revealed that she is a lifelike doll. 

Frankenstein's Monster/Adam (Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, 1818)3

"Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

[Photo credit: Theodor von Holst, Wikipedia website]

Mary Shelley's classic, influential novel about the young scientist Victor Frankenstein is considered as one of the earliest examples of true science fiction. Writer Brian Aldiss even argues it should be considered as the first true science fiction story, because the main character is able to create life by using modern, scientific experiments. Frankenstein's professors tell him to reject alchemy and magic in a time when the word science had yet to be invented, and with this Mary Shelley decides to work with what was considered to be possible during her time.

In the novel, Frankenstein's monster is completely organic, assembled gradually from scavenged cadavers, and animated not by electricity as it is normally portrayed in films, but by an elemental principle of life that Frankenstein discovers. The monster is intelligent, and asks Frankenstein to provide him with a female companion so that he may have happiness. Frankenstein destroys his companion because he fears it would lead to a race of giants, which sparks the monster's rage and rebellion against his creator. 

The Steam Man (The Huge Hunter/Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward Ellis, 1868)5,6

"The height of the steam man's head carried the smoke and cinders clear of those behind, while the wonderful machinery within, worked with a marvelous exactness, such as was a source of continued amazement to all except the little fellow who had himself constructed the extraordinary mechanism."

[Photo credit: World of Sideshow wiki]

Edward Ellis's Steam Man is an early example of the Edisonade genre of science fiction. Derived from Thomas Edison's name, the genre describes stories that feature an ingenious young American inventor, who uses his inventions to go on adventures, solve problems, and defend himself against his enemies. The invention often has many purposes, such as weaponry and transportation. 

In this case, the teenage hero is Johnny Brainerd, who creates the steam man and uses it to pull wagons that can carry passengers. Despite its large size, the steam man can run quite fast, and Johnny uses this to his advantage (such as, for hunting buffalo). 

An imitation of this story was written by Harry Enton in 1876, called Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, which also features a young inventor and his robots. Frank Reade's steam man improves upon the first, with a much more efficient engine due to improvements in hydraulics and use of lighter-weight alloys. Thus, it is faster and stronger. Frank Reade's son, Frank Jr., would eventually go on to create Steam Man Mark III, and replaced the use of steam with the use of electricity.4 

This and Steam Man of the Prairies were dime novels, popular fiction that is much like the comic books of today.

The Dancing Partner (The Dancing Partner by Jerome K. Jerome, 1893)

"That Lieutenant Fritz had made a strong impression on the company was undoubted, yet none of the girls seemed inclined to dance with him. They looked askance at his waxen face, with its staring eyes and fixed smile, and shuddered."

[Photo credit: Fiction Fan's Book Reviews blog]

The inventor, Nicholaus Geibel, overhears a conversation among women where they discuss a lack of good male dancing partners, and gets the idea to create a clockwork dancer that never gets tired. He introduces the dancer, Lieutenant Fritz, to the guests at the party, who are initially uneasy at his appearance but eventually find that he is a perfect dancing partner. However, events later go awry as some of his screws loosen and he starts dancing faster and faster, causing his partners to faint. 

The unease that the guests experience could be an early example of the Uncanny Valley, a hypothesis which states entities that bear a likeness to humans are sometimes considered to be creepy. 

Tiktok (Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1907)

"I am on-ly a ma-chine," said Tiktok. "I can not be kind an-y more than I can be sor-ry or glad. I can on-ly do what I am wound up to do." 

[Photo credit: John K. Neill, Wikipedia]

Dorothy finds the mechanical man, Tiktok, with a printed card suspended from the back of its neck. The card provides directions for 'using' Tiktok, such as how to make him speak, think, and move by winding the clockwork in his body. Tiktok needs to be periodically wound like a toy to function, as he cannot wind himself up.

Tiktok has been referenced in other fiction, and his benign nature subverted into something more sinister, such as in Gregory Maguire's Wicked and John Sladek's Tik-tok. 

Robots (Rossum's Universal Robots by Karel Capek, 1920)7 8

"2. Robot: We wanted to be like people. We wanted to become people.

Radius: We wanted to live. We are more capable. We have learned everything. We can do everything.

3. Robot: You gave us weapons. We had to become the masters.

Robot: We have seen the mistakes made by the people, sir."

[Photo credit: Technet website]

This famous play, which was successful in its time, describes a factory that makes artificial people or roboti, from synthetic organic matter. Less like robots and more like androids or cyborgs because of their biological nature, these synthetic people work for humans but eventually organize an uprising, causing the extinction of humans.

Karel Capek's play is influential for being the first to use the word "robot", replacing "automaton" or "android". It is also worth noting that "robota" in Czech means forced labour, of which the robots in the play were made to do.

Automata (Automata by S. Fowler Wright, 1929)9

"The day of the substitution of the machine for the human body is not a vision of the future, a speculation of the philosopher. It is already upon us."

[Photo credit: Cybernetic Zoo website]

In this story, a famous scientist speaks at a conference, and predicts the inevitable day in which human labor would eventually be replaced by 'automata', with industrial workers and domestic servants going first. Automata already serve families in their homes as maidservants, and even have the ability to oil themselves and charge each other's batteries. The automata also serve many problems because of their lack of emotions and human frailty. The second part of the story describes a future where doctors and pilots are replaced by machines, and ships are controlled without a crew.

In the last part of the story, the author imagines a world where the last man on Earth works for the automata, who have now fully replaced people. Wright's theme for the story is an interesting one, and will also be influential in later stories: the idea that robots or machines are the next stage in an evolutionary process. 


1. Idel, M. (1990). Golem: Jewish magical and mystical traditions on the artificial anthropoid. NY: State University of New York Press.
2. Gelbin, C. (2011). The Golem returns: From German Romantic literature to global Jewish culture, 1808-2008. USA: The University of Michigan Press.
3. Aldiss, B. (1995). The detached retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy. NY: Syracuse University Press.
4. Guinan, P. (2012). "Steam Man Mark II". Retrieved from Big Red Hair website.
5. Lyons, M. (2011). Books: A living history. CA: J. Paul Getty Museum.
6. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. (July 1 2015). "Edisonade".
7. Asimov, I. (September 1979). "The Vocabulary of Science Fiction." Asimov's Science Fiction.
8. Roberts, A. (2011). "Introduction" to RUR & War with the Newts. London: Gollancz.
9. Warrick, PS. (1980). The cybernetic imagination in science fiction. The MIT Press. 

1 comment:

  1. This is fabulous for my research on a short talk I am being invited to do for the museum I hope to work for! Wish I could print it out! :D