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Robots I Have Known

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My grand-daughter, Maddie, is fascinated by robots. Considering that she’s just over three years old, that’s a good indication, to me at least, of the prevalence of robots in our culture.

The word “robot” was created by a Czech painter in 1920 for his brother to use in a play to describe the machines who did drudge work. It’s a spinoff of the Slovak word for “serf.” Here’s a photo of three robots from that play, Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which debuted in 1920:

So from the beginning, robots had to have some resemblance to humans and be capable of movement. There are many robotic machines in use today but few are what we think of as robots. They’re just machines designed for repetitive tasks.

This cute stamped-metal toy from the 1950s is what a robot looked like to kids of my generation, though not all of them carried little red lanterns:

In the movies, one of the most iconic robots was Robby in The Forbidden Planet from 1956:

Robby was created by the prop makers at MGM and appeared in later TV shows and movies under other names. His best feature was the gears moving inside the transparent dome on his head.

The most famous film robot was probably R2D2 from Star Wars:

His buddy, C-3PO, was more of an android, I guess, but here he is:

Television had had many great robots. The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening, had a robot named Bender on a show called Futurama:

Here’s the 1948 comic book cover that Bender was based upon:

My favorite television robots were the wisecracking Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo from Mystery Science Theater 3000; here they are with their creator, Joel:

In comic books, unrestrained by having to be a physical object, robots were everywhere and of all shapes and sizes. A 1941 Action Comic shows Superman smashing a couple of crude robots:

On the early ’50s television show, The Adventures of Superman, there were a couple of robots. You can see they, too, were crude, reflecting the cheap budget of that truly wonderful show. Superman, as portrayed by George Reeves, was much kinder to this robot than his comic-book counterpart had been a few years earlier:

Side comment: In my opinion, George Reeves’ portrayal of Superman was flat-out the most successful by any actor. We now return to the robots.

In the later 1950s, DC editor Mort Weisinger created a Superman ethos that included a ton of great robots. Superman made an entire platoon of robots to cover for him in emergencies, and, as this Action Comics cover from 1961 shows, he had a few Clark Kent robots, too:

I love the expression on the face of that Clark Kent robot! He is really confounded by his predicament. And how do you like that expository dialog? Weisinger was famous for that and I find it one of the coolest things about the comics he edited; it was so over-the-top. One of his assistants once argued with Weisinger over the editor’s insistence on having a sign over a crook’s secret hideout that said, “Secret Hideout!”

These later Superman comic-book robots looked so much like humans that even close friends of the original subject couldn’t tell they were artificial. These high-end robots often had emotions, and, to my way of thinking, started crossing into what are more properly called androids. An android is a synthetic human being, and folks are busily creating them nowadays!

Here’s one called DER 01, made by the Intelligent Robotics Lab in Japan:

Spooky, huh?!?!?

How many robots and androids do you know?

I Can’t Wait!!!

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Christmas isn’t that far away, my friends, and this cover from a December, 1937 issue of The Modern Boy promises us great things are coming our way!

The Modern Boy was a weekly magazine that had exciting stories and pictures aimed at ten-year-olds in England. This cover showed a Dad and his son deciding on which toy they preferred.

All joking aside, this is a fairly accurate forecasting of us ordering stuff via the internet. The microphone sticking out of the set is a trifle alarming but remember that when this cover illustration was created, television in the home was at least ten or twelve years away. The artist based his TV set of the future on the large radios of the day and scored pretty near the mark. I like what appears to be a rotary telephone dial on the set; I guess that’s how you connect with the toy store.

Of course, two-way television communication was further off but it’s still a cool guess by folks 75 years ago at what our world would be like today.

Here’s another cover from an old publication; this one’s a dust-jacket cover from the 1912 book, Tom Swift and his Photo Telephone. Tom clearly anticipates iChat.

The form factor isn’t as accurate on this vision of the future, but it must have been a mind-blower to kids 100 years ago. Here’s some dialog where Tom and his dad discuss Tom’s amazing idea:

All right, Dad. Go ahead, laugh.'”

“‘Well, Tom, I’m not exactly laughing at you … it’s more at the idea than anything else. The idea of talking over a wire and, at the same time, having light waves, as well as electrical waves passing over the same conductors!'”

“‘All right, Dad. Go ahead and laugh. I don’t mind,’ said Tom, good-naturedly. “‘Folks laughed at Bell, when he said he could send a human voice over a copper string …”

One senses Tom’s frustration at his dad’s attitude, but we all know who came out looking foolish at the end of the book, don’t we?

There was another series of Tom Swift books when I was a kid; these were the adventures of Tom Swift, Jr, and he also had nifty ideas like space stations and solar batteries and a host of different metal alloys which were considered far-out at the time.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

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Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.”

Copyright © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music

Early Voting Debacle, Maryland Style

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I live in Prince Georges County, Maryland, which has a population of 871,233 and covers 498.45 square miles. There were five designated early voting locations in this county.

Five.

Whomever the Braniac was that figured five early-voting locations were enough for this county should be made to stand in line for, say, the next two years as punishment.

For comparison purposes, the District of Columbia has a population of 617,996 and covers 68.3 square miles. They had eight early-voting locations; that’s with a 30% smaller population and only 14% of the size of Prince Georges County. They had 70% more early-voting sites than PG County.

I tried early voting Saturday at 2pm. The closest early-voting location to me is the College Park Community Center, and I couldn’t get near the place. Police officers were there to attempt to handle the traffic nightmare, but I was stuck on a residential street for thirty minutes in absolute gridlock. When a policeman walked by my car, I asked what in the world was going on; I though that perhaps there had been some sort of accident or catastrophe.

He replied that all the cars were folks trying to get to the polling place, and that we all had to try to turn around and go home; officials hadn’t realized how many people would show up.

When I tried again yesterday afternoon, accompanied by an impatient friend, we stood in line for 45 minutes, and gave it up when we were told that we would have to spend at least another 45 minutes before we’d reach our turns. I was all for staying, but my friend Bob was livid and refused to spend another minute in line. I really couldn’t blame him.

So to Hell with early voting. Maybe one day some official can make an intelligent decision and designate a reasonable number of early-voting sites. I seriously doubt it.

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