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Sunday
Mar132011

Coming to America: Alpha the Robot Hops the Pond (1934)

February, 1934 Practical Mechanics (image: http://www.davidbuckley.net/)

In 1932 American newspapers started publishing wildly exaggerated stories about a British robot named Alpha that allegedly blinked to life, rose to his feet, and shot his inventor. Some of the stories quoted the inventor, Harry May, as saying that he knew Alpha would turn against him one day. An editorial from Louisiana even proclaimed that the era of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was upon us. But just two years later Alpha made a trip to the United States in a whirlwind of guns, gizmos and girls.

In this film from 1934 we see Alpha shooting a gun loaded with blanks, answering questions about his height and weight, and being particularly mean to a brunette who apparently wasn't blonde enough to be Alpha's bride. Though Professor May claimed that Alpha autonomously responded to speech with 20 or 30 wax cylinders that played pre-recorded answers, this seems quite unlikely.

The November 5, 1934 issue of Time magazine describes a demonstration of Alpha at Macy's department store in Manhattan:

Last week Alpha, the robot, made its first public appearance in the U. S. One of the most ingenious automatons ever contrived by man, a grim and gleaming monster 6 ft. 4 in. tall, the robot was brought to Manhattan by its owner-inventor-impresario, Professor Harry May of London, and installed on the fifth floor of R. H. Macy & Co.'s department store. Encased from head to foot in chromium-plated steel armor, Alpha sat on a specially constructed dais with its cumbrous feet securely bolted to the floor, stared impassively over the knot of newshawks and store officials waiting for the first demonstration. The creature had a great sullen slit of a mouth, vast protuberant eyes, shaggy curls of rolled metal. In one mailed fist Alpha clutched a revolver.

It's rather peculiar to read later in the article that he's described as giving a Nazi salute during the demonstration. There's no clear indication of what could be viewed as a Nazi salute from the film I've seen, and without a byline for the Time article I can't even begin to guess about the writer's sympathies.

The end of the article does help to clarify what happened that day, when Alpha was purported to have sprung to life and shot his inventor:

Once it fired its pistol without warning, blasting the skin off the professor's arm from wrist to elbow. Another time it lowered its arm unexpectedly, struck an assistant on the shoulder, bruised him so badly that he was hospitalized.

Top image cropped from a February, 1934 issue of Practical Mechanics magazine featured at davidbuckley.net

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March 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterwarrenthree

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