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Friend or foe? Robots in popular culture

Published: 27 December 2018

As characters in books, plays, comics and films, robots have represented our hopes and fears for what the future might hold for over a century.

These different media have played a powerful role shaping our expectations of what robots should look like—but where did it all begin?

Will robots replace us?

Since the early 1900s, writers and filmmakers have used robots to represent our growing uncertainty about humanity’s place in the world, and our fears of being displaced by machines—or of even turning into them.

Mill girls at work, about 1904.
Mill girls at work, c.1904. Their working day would have been tightly regimented and set at a speed determined by the machines

The industrial age gave rise to machines that started to take on factory jobs previously done by people.

Tin Woodsman of Oz - John Rea Neill © Universal History Archive/UIG / Science & Society Picture Library
Tin Woodsman, as drawn by John Rea Neill, 1907

Workers became responsible for keeping the machines running. People began to feel that they were being replaced by machines, or even becoming machines themselves.

This became a common theme in popular culture, giving rise to some of the first robot characters.

As a human transformed into a machine, the Tin Woodman (Tin Man) from L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' is often believed to symbolise the dehumanization and hopelessness felt by industrial workers in the period the book was written.

L. Frank Baum went on to create an entirely mechanical character called 'Tik-Tok' in his 1907 book 'Ozma of Oz'.

Tik-Tok is often cited as one of the very first ‘robots’ (in all but name) in literature.

….[the Tin Man] is as alive as we are, ‘cause he was born a real man, and got his tin body a little at a time—first a leg and then a finger and then an ear——for the reason that he had so many accidents with his ax.  […]This copper man [Tik Tok] is not alive at all!

L. Frank Baum

Where does the word 'robot' come from?

The word ‘robot’ originated in a play called ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ (R.U.R), written in 1920 by Czech playwright Karel Capek. In Czech, ‘robota’ means ‘labour’ or ‘drudgery’.

Capek’s ‘Robots’ were artificial people who did work for humans happily at first but who later rebelled and caused the extinction of the human race.  The ‘Robots’ described in the play were creatures that could be mistaken for humans rather than machines:

HELENA: (sits) Where are you from?
SULLA: From here, the factory
HELENA: Oh, you were born here.
SULLA: Yes I was made here.
HELENA: (startled) What?
DOMIN: (laughing) Sulla isn't a person, Miss Glory, she's a robot.

Karel Capek, 'R.U.R.' (1920)

Rossum's Universal Robots had an influence on the first robot actually made in Britain, which has the letters ‘R.U.R’ emblazoned on its chest. Built in 1928 and named Eric, the robot was constructed to take the place of the Duke of York when he was unable to attend the opening of an exhibition in London.

Archive footage of Eric the Robot © ITN Source

Robots on the silver screen

Replica of robot Maria from the film Metropolis Science Museum Group Collection
2016 replica 'Maria' robot from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis, built by prop-makers Kropserkel Inc, Toronto.

In 1927 Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' featured Maria, the first robot character in a blockbuster film. 

In the plot, an inventor builds the robot to replace the real human character of Maria.

The robot goes on to ruin the real Maria’s reputation, starting an uprising and causing chaos.

Later, Maria’s design strongly influenced the look of Star Wars droid 'C-3P0'.

Could robots help humans out?

Robots haven't always been seen as a threat. In the 1950s and 60s, the world was recovering from war—times were good, industries were booming and people were more affluent than ever. 

Robots began to embody people’s optimism for the future.

These gleaming, broad-shouldered men of metal would be performers, home helps and companions, signalling easier, happier times ahead. 

Toy robots provided the classic image of a robot in popular culture. They were hugely popular, playing to themes of new technology, space exploration and a future beyond Earth that captured the public’s imagination at the time.

Some robots were even scaled up to full human size.

'George' was built in 1949 by Tony Sale using scrap metal from a grounded WW2 plane. The robot was widely praised by newspaper reporters and, described as a model for the domestic robot of the future.

George, humanoid robot, 1949 on display in Robots exhibition at the Science Museum Science Museum Group Collection
George on display at the Science Museum in 2017

'Cygan' (sometimes called Gygan) was built to open an exhibition in Italy by Dr Piero Fiorito, where it was described as 'l’uomo elettrionico del futouro' (the electronic man of the future).

Cygan later came to London, where the press speculated that 'there may yet well be a time when robots like Gygan are accepted as part of our everyday life, automotons as gentle as lambs for chores like babysitting, and the strength of a dozen Samsons for more ominous purposes.'

Humanoid robot, 'Cygan', built Dr Piero Fiorito, Turin, Italy, 1957. Dr Piero Fiorito/Jerry Wallace/Science Museum Group Collection, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0
Humanoid robot Cygan

Robots still reflect our optimism for the role of technology in our future.

Characters such as Astroboy, C-3P0 in Star Wars or Baymax from Big Hero 6 all help us imagine a world where robots are not the destroyers of humanity, but its helpers, companions, and perhaps even friends.


Part of the Science Museum Group