“You want to know what a robot’s designed for”*…
In examining the history of famous robots, you’d be forgiven for overlooking a 1950s children’s toy named Robert.
Robert the Robot, who was a product of the once-mighty Ideal Toy Company, didn’t do much, at least compared to the standards set by science fiction at the time. Unlike the helpful humanoids of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Robert was just a 14-inch-tall hunk of plastic that could utter a few phrases, wheel around with a tethered remote control, and grip objects in his mechanical arms.
Still, Robert deserves credit for being the first plastic toy robot made in the United States, and the first toy robot to become [as your correspondent, a delighted recipient of Robert as a Christmas gift, can attest] an American sensation. He was the subject of children’s songs, enjoyed a Hollywood film cameo, and was quickly imitated by rival toy makers. He also preceded the industrial robotics boom by several years, capturing people’s imagination long before we truly understood what robots could do…
Before Rosie and R2-D2 became pop culture icons, a humble toy named Robert paved the way: “The 1950s Toy Robot Sensation That Time Forgot.”
As we turn the crank, we might spare a thought for Rube Goldberg; he died on this date in 1970. A cartoonist, sculptor, author, engineer, and inventor, he is best remembered as a satirist of the American obsession with technology; his series of “Invention” cartoons used a string of outlandish tools, people, plants, and steps to accomplish simple, everyday tasks in the most complicated possible way. (His work has inspired a number of “Rube Goldberg competitions,” the best-known of which, readers may recall, has been profiled here.)
Goldberg was a founder and the first president of the National Cartoonists Society, and he is the namesake of the Reuben Award, which the organization awards to the Cartoonist of the Year.