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It was going to be a very scientific evening, until the robot revolted!
August 12, 2010 1:58 PM   Subscribe

A couple decades after the first appearance of Steam Men in the 19th century, and a few years after the word "robot" was coined, one Professor Harry May from London toured around the US with Alpha the robot. The one ton mechanical man was built from a combination of modern inventions that granted Alpha certain skills, from product model and vocal promoter of the automatic electric toaster, to gunslinger. The problem with giving Alpha a gun was that the robot revolted (PDF, via), shooting his master and creator in 1932. After this incident, Alpha became Mary Ann (via), complete with new hair, a dress, and a soprano voice.
posted by filthy light thief (16 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Two of the above-linked sites have more information on Alpha, but the chronology is a bit muddled. The Cybernetic Zoo article compiles more information that I found anywhere else, including on the alternate heads and chestplates, but no logical order to the whole. David Buckley's Mech-Ai site hosts the Practical Mechanics scans that were linked above, along with a bit more information and photos of Alpha.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:03 PM on August 12, 2010


Height, weight, then straight into "do you like little boys". They didn't mess around in those days.
posted by luvcraft at 2:13 PM on August 12, 2010


Indeed. In that video, he'd like to marry a nice blond lady, but at a show in 1936, he said "I've a heart of steel. I don't love nobody and nobody loves me." (source) More like Marvin than a metal Romeo.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:23 PM on August 12, 2010


Er, you do know that the Steam Man of the Prairies (first link) was fictional, right?
posted by copperykeen at 2:26 PM on August 12, 2010


Er, you do know that the Steam Man of the Prairies (first link) was fictional, right?

Hey, man. Uncool. You killed my dreams.
posted by grubi at 2:27 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


sadly, your first link about the 19th century "steam men" is fiction.
posted by luvcraft at 2:29 PM on August 12, 2010


drat, posted too slowly.
posted by luvcraft at 2:29 PM on August 12, 2010


Fun fact: I (non-native English speaker) have pronounced "robot" like Zoidberg for most of my life (ROB-bit). I only learnt that was weird after I saw that on Zoidberg's wiki article. But I decided to continue pronouncing it like that. Wobblewobblewobble.
posted by qvantamon at 2:29 PM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sorry for the lack of clarification, my intention was that "steam men" were first discussed before the term "robot" was coined in 1921, not that there were actually steam-powered automatons marching around.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:38 PM on August 12, 2010


I started pronouncing "robot" the way Zoidberg does when I first heard him say it. I can't stop.
posted by Stove at 2:42 PM on August 12, 2010


I'm not sure how true it is, but I remember hearing "robot" was pronounced quite differently from the modern way by Capek and other early sci-fi writers. Something closer to Zoidberg's pronunciation, actually.

That could have been just some weird fever dream though.
posted by kmz at 2:55 PM on August 12, 2010


That PDF about the first robot uprising has some awesome illustrations.

"This Queer-Looking Mechanical Man Is Giving the Group of Attractive Show Girls Their Dance Cues. The Novel Stage Director Has No Difficulty at All in Keeping His 'Mind' on His Work."
posted by twirlip at 2:56 PM on August 12, 2010


Something closer to Zoidberg's pronunciation, actually.

Zoidberg pronounces it as roh-BOT, with a hard rolled "r," which is how it is pronounced in Western European languages, including Czech, from where the word is derived.
posted by griphus at 3:15 PM on August 12, 2010


Eastern European, rather.
posted by griphus at 3:15 PM on August 12, 2010


Years later, Harry May moved to San Luis Obispo, where he became known as Captain Buffoon.

COULD. NOT. RESIST.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:58 PM on August 12, 2010


Zoidberg pronounces it as roh-BOT...

We're talking about Zoidberg from Futurama. Who are you talking about?

I was sure there must be some hidden assistant doing the voice, but apparently not:
Since different voices are differently pitched the device is rigged to ignore absolute pitch but to respond to relative pitch variations which occur in sequence in certain word combinations as pronounced by most speakers. Different combinations of variations close different combinations of relay circuits, and each combination of circuits is hooked up to the appropriate wax cylinder which supplies the answer, or to the proper motor which moves the robot as directed. Thus Alpha may answer "Seven" when asked "How many days in the week?" but remains dumb if the question is phrased "A week has how many days?"
Basically, Alpha the robot understands African drum language.
posted by DU at 7:48 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


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