Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 9.  Intelligence

Robots --
stories from The New York Times

August 16, 1854

Automatic Labor.

The ancients tried hard to make a speaking automaton and failed.  The moderns have striven to make working automata, and have succeeded.  But a talking machine would be master of small service to the world.  Only one more to help swell the noise and confusion that crazes the old earth.  A working automaton does the work of a score or a thousand men, and the men whose jobs are thus taken off their hands, may go about pleasanter business.  Herein the glory of the moderns is far brighter than that of the ancients.  Let us be thankful.  He is a public benefactor who makes an iron lever or a screw do what a hundred poor fellows would have to sweat and tug to do, not half as well.  And he who converts good sober men into automata -- there are such in the world, whether malevolent or not, is a doer of wrongs.  The latter belong to a decaying tribe -- they are dying away.  Revolutions, Printing-presses, and Common Schools are poisonous to them.

To do what the world has done for itself now every day, it would take twice as many men as there are upon the earth; and yet the doers are a little minority of the world's inhabitants.  Working automata are fast coming to be the only slaves.  It is discovered that one strong mind can animate more than five hundred pounds of flesh and blood -- it can just as easily rule over a boundless quantity of iron and wood, and energize many horse power of machinery.  A man of sense and well trained, can do, not his own thinking only, but all that is necessary to be done for the materials that will do the work of a thousand pair of hands....

There is no danger that fingers will ever prove superfluous, or stout bodies seem unnecessary.  Fingers will always be handy to reckon on, and muscular power will assist in making the effective gestures at a stump speech.  But for the old uses, they are certainly to be in less demand hereafter.  We have preached, exhorted, written editorials against the habit that our girls have fallen into, of neglecting their knitting and sewing to spin steel-yarn and read novels.  It has not proved of much use.  So stockings are knit by looms now, and the Sewing Machines are constructed to sew better, stronger, more evenly and much steadier than even our model daughters could.  Our mail carriers loitered to tell stories by the way.  Our post-boys stopped to trade horses on their route.  So the telegraph was invented, and the lightning, which has no voice except a kind of thundered Dutch, has got the contract; and now a man of sedentary habits at each end of a wire that may be anything but endless, will do the work of hundreds of steady post-boys, and just as many $200 horses....

October 10, 1922


A Czecho-Slovak Frankenstein.

R. U. R.
A Play from the Czechoslovakian ... Karel Capek.
At the Garrick Theatre.

...Having been worn threadbare in the country of its origin, the Frankenstein metaphor has reached Czechoslovakia and has there achieved a social consciousness -- has become, in fact, class conscious.  Rossum's Universal Robots, whose initials give the new play at the Garrick its title, are mannikins so skillfully devised that they do all the manual and much of the semi-skilled work of the world.

In the parable of the play they are the mechanical workers of our mechanized civilization -- human cogs and levers.  Even in the first act, when they are newly created, they dabble in the phrases of Karl Marx.  But as yet they are comparatively harmless.  The trouble comes when one of the inventors, beguiled by the philanthropic heroine of the play, finds a means of creating more nearly perfect Robots -- gives the workers of the world ideals and education.  That inflames the heart of Frankenstein, fills him with rage against his masters -- and the result is a clean sweep of civilization.

If this were all of the play, the result might be a clean indictment, a grim and terrible preachment against the evils of progress.  There is, in fact, much incidental satire of the capitalist world, which has the knack of telling epigram.  For the most part, the parable is skillfully sustained:  it is never insisted upon, always suggested.  But in one regard it breaks down lamentably.  What Karl Marx delighted to call the proletariat is least of all prolific.  It has, in fact, been cunningly denied by its investors the power of reproduction.  So when the melodramatic third act is achieved, and civilization lies in ruins, the Robots find that their triumph is futile.  With their generation life on this planet will forever cease.

The meaning of all this, of course, if it has any meaning, is that something more is needful to mundane existence than Robot labor, even under its more enlightened leaders.  Rossum's Universal Robots make some such discovery as is in process among Russia's Universal Mujiks.  That issue is dodged.  In the English version of Paul Selver and Nigel Playfair the combat of social forces, this brave Phillipic [sic] against the world of capitalist exploitation, turns to a sentimental question of whether, after all, mankind unmechanized is to endure.

An epilogue reassures us.  Two young folk appear -- ex machina, as the Greeks put it, but certainly not out of the modern mechanism of industry -- who have discovered how to fool the simple-minded Robots.  They have found a deserted cottage with a dog and a cat.  As the sun rises on the backdrop they give promise of becoming a new Adam and Eve.

In the intelligence of its writing, the novelty of its action and the provocative nature of its mood, "R.U.R."  sustains the high traditions of the Theatre Guild....  But the main theme, whatever it is, does not, as the golfers say, carry through.  Much socialist intention eventuates, to all appearances, in a socialist impasse.  This is the more damaging in view of the fact that as sheer melodrama of blood and horror the evening comes off rather tamely.  A Robot that fails to raise goose flesh does dire sabotage against its dramatic inventor.  But it is something to have been favored with the first dramatic importation from our new world neighbor, Czechoslovakia.

October 15, 1922


IN THE "Erewhon" of Samuel Butler [English writer (1835-1902)], it will be remembered, machinery was held to be the great enemy of mankind.  Every cog and lever, boiler and driving wheel had been scrapped -- buried in the bowels of the earth or sunk in a mountain tarn.  To speak of a locomotive, even of a watch, was to evoke a grisly terror.  In the Czechoslovakian phantasy, "R.U.R.," with which the Theatre Guild has opened its new season, there are moments in which the satire of "Erewhon" seems bettered.

Here the great enemy of mankind is not the machine, but the human beings that civilization has doomed to an eternity of feeding it -- the so-called proletariat.  Grant that mankind has learned how to make industrial workers by chemical synthesis and -- the lid is off!  This modern Frankenstein is a whole order of human beings, aroused and class-conscious.  Further to confute Samuel Butler, the Russian experiment comes to mind.  At the first touch of Bolshevism the mechanical fabric of industry fell apart, became well-nigh as useless as that of terrified Erewhon.  The result was an impotent state, a population ravaged by famine and disease:  but the human  kind lived on -- became embittered, insensate with frustration.  The true enemy of civilization is not the machine, but the mechanized human being -- dwarfed in intelligence, stunted in sympathy, swayed by the only idea one can ever derive from the seamy side of the industrial fabric, the idea of soulless mastery, sheer physical power.  In the Czechoslovakian play enlightened humanity protests against the manufacture of helot "Robots," but profit-making captains of industry have need of "hands" and war-making statesmen have need of soldiers:  so Robots are made by hundreds of thousands and millions -- until they turn on their makers and oppressors, obliterate them and the fabric of civilization entire.  For the purposes of the theatre, this human embodiment of the machine has obvious advantages.  "The Revolt Against Civilization" [1922] which Lothrop Stoddard [American political theorist and eugenicist (1883-1950)] alarmingly psychologizes becomes at once concretely symbolized and dramatically focused.  Satire is touched with the light of the human countenance and the mechanized human being becomes protagonist of smashing melodrama....

The basic material and the whole structure of the action ... cries out for the obliteration, the annihilation of the structure of mechanized civilization.  It is a plea for the "state of nature" of Rousseau [French political philosopher and writer, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)], for the arcadian simplicity and innocence which the anarchists postulate as the result of a brief transition period of violence and bombs.

No other assumption can account for the most luminous and most satanic stroke of Karel Capek's satire.  The heroine of the play embodies the Christian philanthropy of the modern world.  Her tender heart cries out that the Robots shall be endowed with human emotions, put in the way of education and of all enlightened living.  Under her mild inspiration the master chemist secretly creates Robots who approach nearer and nearer to the human norm.  But it is these very super-Robots who conceive the plan of revolt, organize it and lead it to victory, murdering their intending benefactress together with the men who have created and exploited them.  It is the voice of Caliban [half-human slave in Shakespeare's play, The Tempest]:

You taught me language and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.

Like the whelp of Sycorax [that is, Caliban], these Robots dream only of a world devoid of man, of all the structure of learning and productivity reared with infinite pains through untold centuries since the stone age.  That would be "the revolt against civilization" with a vengeance....

August 8, 1923


Sir Paul Vinogradoff of Oxford Declares Reds Wrecked Russian Schools.


But Exiled Teachers, He Tells Politics Institute, Are Preparing to Return to Rebuild.

Special to The New York Times.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Aug. 7. -- The discussion of Russia under Bolshevism at today's meeting of the Institute of Politics round table, directed by Boris A. Bakhmetoff, former Russian Ambassador to the United States, led to a general denunciation of the Red school system, and an agreement that the Soviets had misled the world with false propaganda in their claims that their educational system had been a great success.

Sir Paul Vinogradoff of Oxford, for seven years a member of the Moscow Duma, and Chairman of the Educational Committee before the revolution whose liberal views won him the disfavor of the Czar's Government, declared that the whole Russian school system had been disorganized, that the schools were schools in name only, that the Bolsheviki were making "robots" of the people, and that the exile of the intelligentsia, which he compared with the dispersion of the Jews, had created a great obstacle in the way of educational reconstruction....

April 27, 1924



A LABOR Government in England puts a miner in the King's palace at Holyrood and recognizes Soviet Russia; yet remains exceedingly and conservatively English. It refuses to follow Russian styles in radicalism.  Similarly British industry is not converted to American styles in industrialism, and still questions the value of standardization.  It was, not very long ago, at a Conference on Industrial Welfare held at Baliol College, Oxford, that the Ford system of mass production was vigorously criticized as tending to deprive workmen of initiative and as creating an environment and certain physical conditions which killed their souls.

"If we are going to Fordize our industries," said one speaker, "what we want is a robot, and not a man."

This and similar charges against large-scale industrial organization have been accumulating these last few years in England; and it has been pointed out that so far the sole argument urged in its favor has been that of superior "efficiency."  "Efficiency to what end?" those who consider themselves to be the victims of the system have with great pertinence demanded....  So acute has the labor problem become in England that the fight of tomorrow may well resolve itself broadly into one between those who clamor for their profits and those who fight for their souls.

Souls may seem objects of small account to "efficiency experts," large-scale industrial organizers and other men of this stamp.  Yet, as Carlyle [Scottish essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)] said, the history of the world is the biography of great men, and the great man has never yet existed who was merely a robot, a perfectly disciplined, marvelously efficient and soulless human machine -- apparently the ideal of modern large-scale industrial organization.  That the wholesale industrialization of a nation has tended unfavorably to affect all qualities or originality and mental distinction in the men who have fallen under its influence appears to be at least partially proved in the case of England....

June 14, 1925


Rhythms of Machinery Supply the New Galvanic Tempo,
and Arcadian Arts and Graces Are Absent


THE dance began the classic drama.  Pantomime and the ballet have continued it as a thing related at least to the modern drama.  When, perforce the movies took over the field of pantomime, though not precisely its art, there arrived, in the comedy of the screen especially, a sort of effect of a dance.  This dance, however, was done to a time incommensurate with any beat known to the music of the old dances -- all "personally" conducted and not mechanically reproduced.

It is this strange galvanic tempo which has been adopted by the people who have aimed in recent years at certain new dramatic effects -- effects conceived as expressive of modernity, kin to steel construction and power plants and allied to that other outstanding expression of modern art, the skyscraper.  The tempo of the movie is the tempo of a machine.  To such tempo the slaves of a machine age may be assumed dramatically to move.  So they have been presented by the Germans in stage pieces like "Masse Mensch."  So, too, here in New York they were presented by Brady in the "Insect Comedy" of the Czech brothers Capek and by the Theatre Guild in the locally manufactured "Processional."

We Become Robots

The effect is an effect of mechanism, running because it cannot stop, or has nothing to tell it when to stop; a motion without sense, direction or control.  In this form of impersonal drama we are supposed to see ourselves deprived of guiding personal brains -- reduced to the rank of the robots which the Capeks invented.

The old dances from which the classical drama developed were dances of the world when it was young.  They were dances of the woods and fields; dances of the chase, of the encounter, of celebration, of courtship, of worship; dances initiative of rustic employments....

Perhaps the new stuff only needs to be humanized.  Perhaps "the dance of the city" has overlooked what lies between the real jungle where its music was born and the jungle of the city where it grew up.  In that space lies the whole vast region ... between the primitive brute and the brute that machines have made.  In short, there lies all humanity and all the humanities; all civilization and all the arts and graces -- including the drama, both ancient and modern, comedy and tragedy.

October 18, 1925


Gleaning Along After the News Harvesters

By L. H. R.

...Book Received.

ROBOT'S RULES of Disorder:  by Wotta Robot, Champion Egg and Vegetable Heaver of the Slamdemonium-American Patriotic Anarchy and Pleasure Association of New York City:  A simple explanation of the methods of disorganizing and misconducting societies, conventions, mass meetings and other deliberative assemblies, with a special chapter on discouraging famous foreign parliamentarians from visiting these shores.  (Review next Summer.)...

November 8, 1925


By Stacy Aumonier

No one who saw Karel Capek's brilliant drama, "The Robots," could fail to be impressed by the significance of its theme.

It is not that Mr. Capek is a propagandist; he is too good an artist for that, but what might be called "the intention" of the play was sufficiently propagandist in character to disturb the imagination of the dullest.  We are not seriously expected to believe that science could compound a chemical automaton that could function as a human being (without a human being's passions, affections and desires); but our attention is riveted upon the fact that the tendency of industrial civilization is to convert its units into automata.  That is to say, the whole trend of our modern social life is toward standardization, both of material and of men.

The economic advantages of standardizing machinery and the bulk of material necessities are obvious.  But in the processes, involving as they do specialization, particularization and repetition, there arises, as a corollary, the tendency to standardize the human being, both physically and intellectually.  There are evidences of it all over the world, particularly in Great Britain, Germany, Japan and America; that is to say, in those countries where the germ of what is known as "industrial progress" is most active.  It is for various reasons -- primarily temperamental and climatic -- less observable among the Latin races.

I think I may state, without fear of contradiction, that whatever value standardization may have in regard to machinery it is a dangerous tendency to develop in human beings.

Man has always been somewhat nervous of the machine.  Understanding little of the basic causes of the mysterious powers he has learned to harness, he has always been haunted by the sinister dread that the machinery he has set in motion may exhibit powers greater than he himself possesses.  It is one thing to create  power, but quite another to control it.

We have a striking example of this in the machinery of finance.  Man created finance as a useful machine for the processes of barter and exchange.  But the machine has now come to control the man.  Most of the troubles of the world are largely attributable to the abuse of finance, that is to say, of commercial values.  Finance is rather like electricity, and magnetism, in that everybody knows what it can do, but nobody knows what it is.  It is not associable with justice or virtue, but it holds the lives and welfare of nations and of individuals in an iron grasp.  The machine has become more powerful than the man.

In the same way the purely physical machinery made for the production of material necessities and luxuries tens more and more toward making a slave of man.  Consequently we observe whole communities being slowly standardized in the direction of a uniform type.

This was never more clearly and adroitly portrayed than in those novels of Sinclair Lewis [American writer and Nobel laureate, (1885-1951)], "Main Street" [1920] and "Babbitt" [1922], and in a lesser degree in "Arrowsmith" [1925].   We here perceived realistic pictures of groups of people having the same furniture, houses, clocks, razors, automobiles and mental outlook.  The effect was hideous, convincing, and somehow alarming.  The vitality and endurance behind it all gave the effect of a condition that must be perpetual and universal.  "Babbitt" in particular had a great vogue in England, and what surprised me was the number of Englishmen who, having read it, patted themselves on the back and gave vent to such an expression as:  "Heavens, what a country!" thereby subscribing to a belief that Babbittry was simply the product of one district, and one people....

...[T]he advent of standardization -- ugly as it may appear -- may be discreetly welcomed.  It only remains to insist that the standard shall be ever advanced and be worthy of the machine.  We may produce Babbitts ... but we have to be careful not to produce Robots.

November 30, 1925



R.U.R. is playing in New York again, but this time the stage is the new Madison Square Garden and the characters are Rickard's Universal Robots, for such the kings of the pedal seem as they whirl around the great saucer in the amphitheatre, never stopping, always sweeping around and around.

Their mad chase will not end until six days have elapsed, and even then it seems the remote corners of the building will echo the swish of the rubber tires days after the last cyclist has left the track.

Perpetual Picturesque Pedaling.

Few sports are more picturesque than that of the six-day teams pedalling [sic] rhythmically on their way, bright colored jerseys of contrasting hues catching the eye as the riders, settling down to the steady grind of the race when the sprints are over, form a long string and swoop down from the banked sides of the saucer like a paleolithic monster.

The steady drone of the tires, the ceaseless thumping of the bikes as they speed on their way, pound in the ears of the dreamy spectator like the racing of the propeller on an ocean liner as the ship cuts through the waves and sends the bow-wash swishing past her iron sides....

The capable six-day contestant never lacks employment, for he is truly universal and he is at home in any land.

March 10, 1926

Briton Invents Machine To Imitate Human Voice

Special Cable to THE NEW YORK TIMES.

LONDON, March 9.-- Sir Richard Paget, inventor and authority on acoustics, demonstrated at a lecture here tonight an instrument with which complete sentences are produced in imitation of the human voice.  The instrument, which contains an organ reed, is held so the fingers act as a mouth.  With the aid of a foot bellows Sir Richard made it say "Hello, London, are you there?" and "Lila, I love you."

He said that if physical conditions for producing the voice of a Melba or a Caruso were known it should be possible to construct pipes which would give single notes of the same acoustic quality.  This would not mean that a vocal Robot a la Caruso could be produced.

October 23, 1927


The "Televox," Nearest to a Robot, Obeying the Human Voice, Can Control Power Stations, Motors and Switches From a Central Point Hundreds of Miles Away -- How the Device Does Its Work


On a table in the New York office of the Westinghouse Electric an Manufacturing Company stands an invention that might be mistaken for a radio receiving set or an automatic telephone switching machine, but is in reality an artificial, electrical man.  Here are the familiar radio tubes to amplify feeble currents and the equally familiar desk telephone, but applied to the new purpose of controlling lifeless mechanism that may be in Chicago or even across the sea in London.

When R[oy] J. Wensley, the engineer who designed this electrical substitute for humanity, demonstrated its capabilities recently by ordering it to light and extinguish lamps, start and stop a fan and vacuum cleaner and control a motor, his audience of sober business men imagined itself for a brief hour in that fantastic world of the future beloved of romancers -- a world in which men and women will do little more than think and bid automatons to fetch and carry, manufacture the countless things a machine civilization requires, sweep streets, cook, wash and dig ditches.  For this particular automaton can be called up on the telephone, asked questions, and given orders which it obeys without the usual human arguing, impudence or procrastination.

A Mechanical Slave.

Wensley's invention is not a toy or an engineering curiosity, but an electrical slave which was created to meet very definite industrial requirements.  Three of his creatures are already working twenty-four [hour]s a day, with no vacation, watching the height of the water in three reservoirs that supply Washington, D.C., with water and reporting by telephone to the War Department whenever they are called up....

Concerned with Functions.

Man is a highly complex organism adapted to live in a highly complex environment.  In a factory, in an artificial environment, he is 90 per cent. useless.  So long as he sits at a machine he might as well be legless.  So long as he does nothing but feed bars of steel into a machine ... he might as well be earless and noseless.

For that reason engineers like Wensley are not concerned with mere imitations of men, but solely with a few functions that men are called upon to perform under special circumstances.  An automatic shoe-pegging machine is not expected to play the grand piano.  Linotypes, printing presses, trolley cars, sewing machines, the hundreds of automata in daily use are very human in their deliberately limited way, but they never look human.

Limitations of a Robot.

To drive home the limitations of an actual Robot, let us assume that an engineer undertook to construct one and to endow it with as many human talents as possible.  The machine would, of necessity, be brainless, because even the most ingenious technologist cannot make a collection of wheels, shafts, magnets and wires think.  But it could move, hear, see and feel under human control.  Instead of legs its creator would give it wheels for simplicity's sake -- wheels which would be driven by electric current supplied either by a battery or a little dynamo mounted within what might be called the "trunk."  Its eyes would be photoelectric cells that would resemble the familiar vacuum tubes of a radio set and would perceive minute differences of light and darkness.  Its ears would be telephone receivers, so that it could hear and respond to spoken or musical commands in accordance with Wensley's system.  A thermostat would enable it to feel heat, so that if the temperature rose above a critical point it could automatically walk, or rather roll, away to cooler surroundings.

It could be endowed with a limited sense of touch, so that it could feel the difference in thickness between a sheet of paper and a block of wood.  It would probably have six or seven arms for simplicity's sake, paradoxical as that may seem.  A living, human arm is much too complicated; it is both sense organ and tool.  Some of the Robot's arms would be strong enough to lift weights of perhaps fifty pounds and would be miniature cranes; others would be mere tubes with claws and fingers mounted on ball-and-socket joints; still others would be mere hooks.  In other words, the engineering Frankenstein would analyze the principle functions of the human hand and arm as a tool-grasping and tool-using device and then proceed to invent separate mechanical equivalents of the requisite number....

An Imagined "Algernon."

Call this creature "Algernon," order it about by name.  It would nevertheless be little more than a huge electro-mechanical doll....

The household or the factory would have to be adapted to the creature's limitations.  Furniture or machines, for example, would have to be so placed that its movements would not be hindered; switches would have to be located near the tracks on which it moved....

"Algernon" would not be a thing of beauty.  He would not even suggest a man.  In fact, he would simply be a box mounted on something that would be like a tea-table running on a narrow-gauge railway track.  He would not have a "head," for his "eyes" and his "ears" could be placed anywhere on the box.  Probably he would have four or five feelers or antenna which would enable him, insect-like, to grope his way and which, at the slightest contact with an obstruction in his path, would cause him to stop dead and thus avoid a collision.

No Resemblance to a Human.

As soon as we have our Robot we see his hopeless inferiority to an automobile, a reaping machine, a shoe-pegger, or any of the countless contrivances that perform one task well.  Study any machine or any scientific instrument.  Invariably it proves to be either a simple artificial muscle or an artificial sense-organ.  What is an electric crane but a huge arm and fist of steel hundreds of times more powerful than human biceps?....

The inventor invariably analyzes motions and then synthesizes.  Wensley's automaton, which is about as human as technical ingenuity can conceive, is such an analyzer and synthesizer.  It performs half a dozen very human functions, but always separately and in sequence.  Synthesis follows when it collects its information and imparts it to the listening ear at the distant end of a telephone.  Functions alone interest the engineer and inventor.  Because he requires the performance of few functions his automata bear no resemblance to human beings.

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  • R.U.R. (1920) by Karel Capek (1890-1938)
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