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Entries in alpha (3)

Friday
Jul012011

Miss Honeywell (1968)

Every new promise of futuristic technology brings with it the hucksters, the swindlers, and the merely confused. In the 1970s the three-wheeled Dale car was supposed to get seventy miles to the gallon, but both the car and its inventor were ultimately revealed to be frauds. In the 1930s American newspapers warned that a robot in England had risen up against its inventor and shot him.

In the mid and late 1960s a highly suspicious robot made the publicity circuit with its "inventor," magician Mark Wilson promoting everything from computers to blenders. With Wilson at the controls and a blue ladybot stiffly walking like a zombie to prove just how mechanical she was, it was quite a sight to behold. In this newsreel from 1968 the "robot" is known as Miss Honeywell and the narrator himself even calls into question the veracity of the operator's claims.

The "woman in a robot suit" stunt is so transparent as to likely be harmless, but you have to wonder how many people saw this robot's demonstration and thought it was real. As we know, there are still some children of the 1980's who think, thanks to Back to the Future II director Robert Zemeckis, that hoverboards were taken off shelves by overzealous child-safety groups.

The ad below of Miss Honeywell -- or in this case, the "housewife of the future -- appeared in the October 9, 1966 Oakland Tribune.

Come see the robot "housewife of tomorrow" plugged in October 10th to 15th.

The Hamilton Beach robot "housewife of tomorrow" will be demonstrated in our 15th and Broadway window. She is the amazing robot who is programmed to do all the cleaning. Watch the robot then come to the fourth floor housewares department to register for the free drawing for Hamilton Beach electric knives to be given away twice a day for each day of the demonstrations. Also demonstrations of Hamilton Beach's amazing blenders and carving knives.

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

Sunday
Aug152010

Alpha the Robot Shoots His Inventor (1932)

 

During the autumn of 1932 a group of curious onlookers assembled in Brighton, England to see inventor Harry May's latest invention, Alpha the robot. The mechanical man was controlled by verbal commands and sat in a chair silently while May carefully placed a gun in Alpha's hand. May then walked across the room to set up a target for the robot to shoot.

Seemingly more man than machine, and without a word from its inventor, the robot rose to its feet. May commanded the two-ton robot to sit, but instead it took a step forward. As the machine slowly raised the pistol, women in the audience screamed and men shouted warnings to the inventor. May commanded the robot to stop. "Drop that gun and sit down!" he screamed to no effect. Naturally, the inventor rose his hand to defend himself. Alpha the robot squeezed the trigger and in one quick, violent moment the discharged bullet pierced flesh and shattered the bones in May's hand.

The robot stood motionless, its arm outstretched with the smoking gun. May's voice could be heard, again desperately attempting to command the robot, "Back to your chair, Alpha! And drop that gun!"

This time, to everyone's amazement, the robot obeyed its master's command. The gun fell to the floor and the robot returned to its chair.

As a doctor tended to May, the inventor calmly explained, "I always had a feeling that Alpha would turn on me some day, but this is the first time he ever disobeyed my commands. I can't understand why he fired before I gave the proper signal."

Newspapers across the United States took this story and ran with it. An editorial from a Louisiana newspaper even proclaimed that the era of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was upon us. The bold new world of automation was to be feared. Mechanical men of our own creation were sure to destroy us all.

With the benefit of hindsight we can say that this series of events never happened, or were at the very least, wildly exaggerated. A much tamer version of the story was reported in far fewer newspapers, (just one by my count), but still contained the sensationalistic headline, "Maker Is Shot by Robot He Invented." In this version of the story May was inserting a cartridge into the gun, which was attached to the robot, and an accidental, premature discharge simply burned the inventor's hand.

 

1932 Oct 23 Ogden Standard-Examiner - Ogden City UT

 

Such fantastic feats ascribed to robots are so obviously absurd to today's skeptical minds. Robotic machines are just now beginning to complete the most basic tasks of walking up stairs, slowly running, and "recognizing" faces. Such autonomous movement, as described in the story of Alpha turning on its inventor, is only recently beginning to be seen in robots being developed by Honda, Toyota and in elite universities around the world.

But why did these articles run in so many newspapers across the country? Why were people apt to believe that a "robot," or "mechanical man" would develop a mind of its own and turn on its inventor?

The 1930s was an era of dread. The Great Depression had ravaged the nation economically, physically and emotionally. The fear of automation manifested itself in sensational pieces throughout various popular media about the invasion of the machine. Comic books, radio dramas and newspaper articles fueled the fire, and allowed the nation to point to something, anything. Robots, technology, automation, they were the cause of our distress.

Technology was something to fear because it would (or had) put you out of a job. Automation meant efficiency. Automation meant fewer jobs for men who worked in factories. Automation meant that we would never see an end to the despair. Sound familiar?

 

The article embedded above is from the October 23, 1932 Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT).

 

Previously on Paleo-Future: