If you are of a certain age, when you think of robots you think of ‘Skynet’, Terminator and the T-1000, if you are of a certain age where you forget what age you are then you might think robots and think ‘Lost in Space’, a rather fab 1960s television show featuring Robot B-9 with weird hoover nozzle extendable arms. I rather lovingly remember the depressed robot ‘Marvin’ from ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, but we don’t need to go back in time to find an array of marvellous robots. Even our children are bombarded with robotic icons to fire their imagination.There is the slightly sinister robot hoover in the Teletubbies called Noo Noo (something about him just isn’t right…) and we can come bang up to date with BB-8, charming fans of the new Star Wars film.
Since robots came into the popular imagination they have never really gone away, and whilst I am not a robot freak (I am not sure what a robot freak looks like to be honest) I am really excited about the Science Museum’s new exhibition opening in February 2017 on Robots. Admittedly they completely sucked me in to the press conference with the opportunity to meet ‘Cygan’, a 1950s 2.4m tall robot with a ‘glamorous past’! I am not entirely sure what constitutes a glamorous past for a robot but I am quite keen to find out.
The exhibition will feature a collection of over 100 robots, from a 16th-century mechanical monk to modern-day state of the art humanoid robotic technology. My other half has only just recently shown me some Boston Dynamics videos of the latest robots that can do a lot more than raise an arm or a leg and crush a tin can (Skynet here we come) and they are kind of impressive and scary at the same time. With so much being written about drones and our ability to change history with technology, this exhibition is perfectly timed to look more closely at our fascination with building robots.
Bipedal Walker, built by David Buckley and the Shadow Robot Project Group, 1987-97. One of the first robots outside of Japan to wobble forward on two legs. The robot could walk by falling forward and catching itself using the 28 artificial muscles in its legs.
The exhibition will cover five different periods and places, exploring how robots and society have been shaped by religious belief, the industrial revolution, 20th century popular culture and dreams about the future. But it is the stories behind these objects that are most intriguing, there is some fantastic Pathé footage of a young lady waltzing around on Cygan’s feet.
But his fame and ‘glamorous’ lifestyle only lasted so long. Apparently after a stint of promotional work as Mr Moto for Ford cars in the 1960s, he sat languishing at the Southend Historic Aircraft Museum (please see http://cyberneticzoo.com/robots/1957-gygan-aka-cygan-aka-mr-moto-fiorito-italian/ for more details).
“Danger Will Robinson, Danger Will Robinson”
I highly recommend checking out Reuben Hoggett’s website – http://cyberneticzoo.com which has fantastic photographs and some history behind Cygan. Finally sold at auction for £17,500 in 2013 he now looks as shiny and new as the day he was (born) made. On the press day he performed like a true champ taking the paparazzi in his stride – you would never have guessed at the places he has been and the thousands he has entertained.
After the speeches were over I sat listening in on a conversation the Curator Ben Russell was having with a member of the press. Cygan with his glowing eyes, rotating head and shiny torso looks impervious to time but also dated in a kind of contradictory way. Russell brimming with enthusiasm was highlighting that, although these robots seem so permanent they are actually quite ephemeral things, they didn’t always last. Eager inventors would cannibalize them to build their next bigger and better robot.
The Science Museum is providing an opportunity to resurrect the ephemeral with a Kickstarter Campaign aimed at raising funds to rebuild the rather wonderfully named Eric, a 1920s kind of tin man who wowed the crowds back in the day and yet sadly disappeared forever. So this is one exhibition you really can get behind in a very personal way.
Whilst meeting Eric is still a little way off, I can see we are incredibly lucky to still have Cygan and I do believe I am quite charmed by him, he is the perfect enticement for what will be a fascinating look into the ‘Rise of the Robots’. So whether you are a fan of Marvin the Paranoid Android, the Terminator or even Noo Noo, the Teletubbies pink custard sucker-upper, there will definitely be something to pull you in and February 2017 is going to seem like a very long time to wait.
Robots at the Science Museum opens February 2017 – http://sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/Plan_your_visit/exhibitions/robots
To donate to the Kickstarter Campaign please visit the website – https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sciencemuseum/rebuild-eric-the-uks-first-robot
Further reading –
With thanks to British Pathe for permission to use the still from 1958 video ‘Gentle Giant aka Robot’ http://www.britishpathe.com/video/gentle-giant-aka-robot/query/gygan+robot for more info on British Pathe please see their website – http://www.britishpathe.com
1950s robot Cygan smashes auction estimate
Financial Times – US military: Robot wars, 7 February 2016
A history of cybernetic robots and animals and early robots