With reports that soon many of our jobs will be taken by robots of some sort, automatons are currently a hot topic. But a new exhibition at The Science Museum goes to show that in one form or another these humanoid machines have been with us for over 500 years. The exhibition looks not just at the history and progress of robots up to the present day, but also notes our ambivalent relationship with these automatons, which stir unease in some and yet are most often modelled on the human form.
Highlights of the exhibition take in the image of robots that we are most comfortable with – the kitsch and colourful 1950s era machines that were created to entertain, not enslave, their human masters. An extensive collection of toy robots made between the 1950s and 1970s, typically in Japan and America, show robots at their most fun, as well as exploring how designs of this era in many ways came to define what we think of in visual terms as robots even today.
The real history of robots starts many centuries earlier however, with an illustration for an articulated manikin included in the show, which appeared in the Hieronymus Fabricius’s book Surgical Works, first published in 1582. You can also meet a reconstruction of Eric, Britain’s first ever robot who was built in 1928, and Cygan (below), a remote-controlled Italian robot from 1957. The story of his initial fame dancing and crushing cans for audiences, inevitable fall from fashion and final rescuing from a rusty death could bring a tear to even an animatronic eye.
On show you will also find Inhka, a robot receptionist with luscious lips and a cocky tilt-of-the-head action which greeted and gave information to visitors on the reception desk at King’s College London between 2003 and 2014. Built specifically for public interaction, the temptation to describe Inhka as ‘she’ is in itself an interesting take on how we can’t help but see ourselves reflected in these intriguing objects.
Robots is on at The Science Museum, London, from 8 February to 3 September 2017.