Figure 2-1. Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. original Prague National Theatre production robot costume 1921 (left) metallic armor-like costume of the later London production 1923 (right).
Čapek’s Robots: Identity of Mass Production
There is other literature in science fiction and folklore that portrays humanoid creations constructed by man, such as Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein published in 1818 or the golem from Jewish folklore. What differentiates Čapek’s robots from these other biological, manmade creations are the instruments and means of production employed in their creation. Čapek’s focal point was on the utilization of automation machinery and mass production which allowed his robots to be produced in the thousands. This is also a key distinction between the concept of robots and the earlier automatons that were handcrafted and produced individually as one of a kind designs or only limited numbers. Of course this is a fictional and conceptual representation of a robot and the technological development of robots followed a more machine or mechanical based materials approach, but their production method shared the same assembly line methodology.
Čapek’s robots are defined by labor. The means of production utilized in their creation was derived from automated machinery and from factory production methods and the robots intended function was to perform labor. The word robot itself is derived from the Czech word robota which means literally work. Labor is intrinsically connected to one’s sense of self; it can define one’s identity. In Estranged Labour, Marx postulates that it is a fundamental need for man to be connected to the objects he is producing[Mar11]. Workers estranged from their labor, be it broadly because of economics, or more specifically, a shift in the means and instruments of production with the introduction of automated machinery or even robotics can have a disrupted sense of self. Our work and our jobs play a significant role in defining our identities so much so that a job loss can induce serious physical and psychological health effects. We witnessed this at the beginning of the 19th Century with the introduction of mechanized looms and the subsequent backlash from British textile workers during the Luddite resistance movement. These workers viewed the machinery as a threat to identity and self. The concept of the robot did not just remain a theatrical metaphor for the division of labor and the working class. Around the very same time as Čapek’s play began headlining around the world, American consumer product company Westinghouse introduced their own vision for robots in society.
Westinghouse and the Domesticated Consumer Robot
In 1926 with the invention of the Televox, a “supervisory control system” developed by Roy James Wensley, Westinghouse began robot research. The Televox allowed for remote operation of just about any electrical device via the telephone system. The device had many practical applications. For example, it allowed a single streetcar dispatcher to open circuit breakers at distant substations thus replacing the many human operators that used to perform these jobs[The28]. Removing manual labor and replacing human jobs is a common theme within automation. However what differentiated the Televox device was its broad range of potential applications to any electrical device that needed operation. It was perceived to have near universal abilities. This was also one of the crucial characteristics of Čapek’s robots. They were not replacements for one specific job function as most instruments of mechanized labor historically were such as the power loom, which was only meant to reproduce the weaving of textiles. Čapek’s robots and now Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s Televox were capable of any job humans could perform. Though not entirely true, the Televox was perceived in this manner, and Westinghouse, facilitated by the press, promoted this concept.
At the time, the physical form of the Televox was merely a box filled with relays and wires, a standard aesthetic for electronic devices. It did not particularly resemble the human form, but the perception of the device to perform universal labor was enough to cast the Televox as a human equivalent. A 1928 Popular Mechanics article titled “ELECTRICAL ‘MAN’ OBEYS VOICE ON PHONE” suggests the idea of the Televox as a “man” and within the same article refers to the Televox as an “electrical robot”[Ele28]. An article about the Televox written by the editor of the Science and Engineering division of the New York Times was accompanied by a cartoon illustration depicting the Televox with arms and legs and seemingly capable of autonomy Figure 2-2.