Invincible Warriors and Goofball Sidekicks: Robots in American Popular Culture by Steve Carper

Saturday, August 10th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Robots in American Popular Culture-small Robots in American Popular Culture-back-small

Cover by Emsh

Steve Carper has been blogging about robots at Black Gate ever since his first post, The First Three Laws of Robotics, appeared back in November 2017. His delightful and entertaining articles have explored every facet of robots in America over the last century and a half. And now his first book on the subject, Robots in American Popular Culture, has been published by McFarland. Here’s what Steve tells us about it.

Robots in American Popular Culture is the first truly comprehensive prose history of the automaton, the mechanical man, the android, the robot, and all its variants. The index runs from “A. Lincoln, Simulacrum” to “Zutka” (stage act). Robots starts in the 19th century, long before Karel Capek used the old Czech word robota in his play, and the concept of the robot as a replacement for humans has been constantly present in the popular mind since. Both famous and long forgotten robots from comic books and strips, movies and television, stories and the stage, amateur and professional inventors, and science fiction of all flavors are part of this vast history.

Robots is available from my publisher and from Amazon. Because McFarland is an academic publisher, most bookstores will not have Robots on their shelves, but they can easily special order it for you.

But wait, there’s more. PBS publishes a companion book to their documentaries. I’ve created a companion website to my book. RobotsInAmericanPopularCulture.com has more than 350 images, movie and tv clips, music videos, and the ever-popular “other”, each keyed to the book’s page number so you can get a quick visualization and let you see what contemporaries saw. Not to mention over 50 additional articles on robots that grew out of the book…

Thanks to all who have long given me encouragement. I hope Robots will live up to and even surpass your expectations.

Robots in American Popular Culture is packed with vintage photos and Steve’s entertaining and superbly researched prose. It’s the best resource you’ll find on one of the most fascinating topics of our new century. Here’s the publisher’s description.

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A New First Comic Strip Robot

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Carper

1903-03-01 Adventures of Inventor Wheelz and his Wonderful Dummy 23 panel 1

Paleontologists constantly push the date of the first known human or the first known use of symbols earlier. Word detectives compete with one another to spot ever earlier uses of a word or phrase or bit of slang. And historians take their reputation in their hands whenever they state that such-and-such was the first one in history.

In my book, Robots in American Popular Culture, I cited Hans Horina’s short- lived robot series, Professor Dodger and His Automatic Servant Girl, which appeared in the Chicago Tribune Sunday comics section in late 1907, as the first comic strip to feature a robot. I didn’t dig that up myself. I found it on Stripper’s Guide, the wonderful blog on old newspaper comics run by Allan Holtz.

As inevitable as Homo Nadali, another comics historian, Alex Jay, found an even earlier robot strip and posted about it on Stripper’s Guide. But there’s a catch. Is it a robot strip or isn’t it?

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Robots! In! Space!

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019 | Posted by Steve Carper

NASA The Power-Driven Articulated Dummy space suit tester 1963-5 Power Driven Articulated Dummy color

Science fiction writers from Doc Smith to Robert Heinlein had their lone inventors hop into spaceships they built in their back yards. NASA had no such luxury. Space was the absolute unknown in the 1950s. A few rockets and satellites had poked their noses into the vacuum, but piloted craft were on the horizon and next to nothing was understood about how the rigors of space would affect human bodies. NASA had to worry about a million small details, using thousands of engineers at dozens of companies.

The pressure to learn grew more urgent in the early 1960s as the Americans prepped for a moon voyage. Project Gemini followed the just-get-‘em-in-space Mercury with the specific goal to understand space and “To demonstrate endurance of humans and equipment in spaceflight for extended periods, at least eight days required for a Moon landing, to a maximum of two weeks.” That put them into a quandary. The conditions of space couldn’t truly be duplicated here on Earth and starting tests on astronauts after they got to space defeated the whole notion of preparation.

Some bright – and at this distance unknown – engineer at NASA had the lightbulb idea: robot astronauts.

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Arok the Robot

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019 | Posted by Steve Carper

Arok vacuuming

Arok the robot first hit the national news in June 1975 when it married Linda Hoffman, the president of the Allan Kemp Fan Club, at the annual convention of fan club presidents in Chicago.

I’ve long ago concluded that the modern world is one long real-time game of MadLibs. Even so, if that sentence doesn’t make you sit bolt upright in front of your screen then my whole career as a chronicler of robot history is a failure.

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Telelux and Rastus: Westinghouse’s Forgotten Robots

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019 | Posted by Steve Carper

Rastus promo photo 1

In the 1920s, the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company became the world’s leading builder of robots, purely by accident. Nobody at Westinghouse ever intended to build a robot, nobody thought that doing so would be anything other than a waste of their time. Then one of their employees, Roy Wensley, came up with a nifty gadget. He figured out that by sending sound tones down a telephone wire, they could activate machinery at the other end, having it either turn on or off or send back another set of tones conveying information about the system.

The control equipment fit into two boxes, one smaller than the other. Stacked, they looked a bit like a human head and torso. Prodded by the public relations staff, Wensley dressed the box front with a cardboard figurine, including a cartoon face, and movable arms and legs. Presto! Televox the Westinghouse Robot splashed all over the media in 1927, the first robot to become a household name since Percy, star of the comic strip of the same name, rocketed to fame in 1911.

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Tillie the Toiler and Rosie the Robot

Wednesday, March 27th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Carper

Tilie the Toiler, Large Feature Comics #30 1942

The history of comic strips sometimes seems like a roll call of male names. The Katzenjammer Kids, Little Nemo, Tarzan, Moon Mullins, Li’l Abner, Barnaby, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Joe Palooka, Barney Google, Mutt and Jeff, Dick Tracy, Harold Teen, and the name of names, Rube Goldberg’s Boob McNutt. Even Blondie heads a strip that’s 99.9% about Dagwood.

Probably the most famous female comic strip heroine is Little Orphan Annie. Digging into archives brings up a roster of mostly forgotten others: Ella Cinders, Etta Kett, Winnie Winkler, Invisible Scarlet O’Neil, Little Annie Rooney, Dixie Dugan, Betty, Nancy, and Dimples, a roster that will bring few images to mind.

Only a handful of comic strips ever ran a major series starring robots, and those were mostly in the male-oriented science fiction strips. Two rare exceptions occurred in Invisible Scarlet O’Neil and Ella Cinders, but both robots were drawn and referred to as males. (How do you sex a robot? The top set of swimmerets on a female’s tail are soft, translucent, and crossed at the tips. A male’s swimmerets are bony, opaque, and point up toward his body. Sorry. That’s how you sex a lobster. You sex robots by the length of their hair and the size of their breasts, just like humans. Check below if you don’t believe me.) Finding a strip with a female star going up against a female robot is the rarity of rarities.

Today’s unique find is Rosie the Robot in Tillie the Toiler. (Not the far more famous Jetson’s Rosie. Rosie is to girl robots what Robbie is to boy robots: hideously overused.)

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Artzybasheff’s Robots

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Carper

Mechanix Illustrated Oct. 1954, 84 Boris Artzybasheff Brings Machines to Life

Boris Artzybasheff is one of my favorite science fiction artists. He’s one of my favorite artists, period, but I put it that way because most people never think of him as a science fiction artist. Look at his work through that modifier, though, and it snaps into place. Perhaps no other artist sees the alien in the everyday as much or depicts it as well as Artzybasheff.

Born in Russia in 1899, he fled to New York in 1919 after having fought with the White Russians. He didn’t speak a word of English. Nevertheless he was a working illustrator by 1922 and supplied the art for the Newbery Award winning Gay-Neck, written by Dhan Gopal Mukerji in 1928.

That early art was stylized but mundane, in the f&sf usage of the word. Nevertheless, publishers saw his true strengths from the beginning. Few mainstream presses released fantasy before WWII but those who did made Artzybasheff their go-to artist. He did the covers for classics like The Worm Ouroboros, The Incomplete Enchanter, and Land of Unreason.

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A Robot Has No Soul

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018 | Posted by Steve Carper

1929-10-22 New York Daily News AFM Robot as Entertainer 39 cropped

Probably the quickest and most thorough technological disruption in history was the introduction of sound to movies. A novelty when a few short scenes were included in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer, sound had almost completely taken over the industry by 1930 despite the at times desperate battle against the cost of changing by both movie studios and theater owners.

The havoc wreaked over Hollywood is the stuff of a thousand books. Performers, especially those dozens of stars who migrated from Europe to share in the movie boom of the 1920s, saw their careers disappear because of their accents or some other failing in their speaking voices. Writers who until that time could make do with plot outlines lost their jobs to stage writers accustomed to creating atmosphere from pure dialog. Cameramen found their expressively mobile cameras confined to soundproof booths whose heat could make them faint if a take too took long. Practically every craft got turned upside down and shaken hard – just as America started sinking into the Great Depression.

One allied but non-Hollywood aspect of the business got hurt worst of all, an entire profession wiped out in a matter of months. Who got the blame? Robots.

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We Buy Us a Robot

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018 | Posted by Steve Carper

1933-03-19 San Francisco Examiner 72 buy a robot illus9

Robot fever first gripped the U.S. in the 1930s. The decade saw a procession of robots across newspaper headlines, with everybody from industrial giant Westinghouse to 13-year-old Bobby Lambert making the news for robots they built. Tens of millions of households owned automobiles, telephones were never far from a hand, families huddled around radios, and electric appliances dotted modern kitchens. The economy might have hit a minor glitch, but despite that – and in many cases because of that, as newspapers strove to carry stories that looked forward to the glistening recovery rather than the gloomy present – robots seemed the obvious choice for the next major technology to invade daily life.

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A Robot to Keep the English Language From Dying Out

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018 | Posted by Steve Carper

T. K. Peters' Robot English teacher

The International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) is an organization established in 1990 to promote the careful study of time capsules. It strives to document all types of time capsules throughout the world. When founded, the group was headquartered at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Hey, that’s not crazier than studying robots. And, like robots, information about time capsules – like time capsules themselves – easily gets hidden or obscure. Somebody needs to dig around, often literally, to get their stories on paper. And sometimes a robot is involved.

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