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How humans have dreamed of robots for centuries


A new exhibition at London’s Science Museum shows off 500 years of humanoid machines, writes Anthea Batsakis.


Humanoid robot, ‘Cygan’, was built in Italy in 1957 by Dr Piero Fiorito, a keen aero-modeller. He designed the robot, weighing almost 500kg and driven by 13 electric motors, to be operated by radio control. Cygan’s early career was glamorous. He danced, performed at shows, and crushed cans for delighted onlookers. But as his career waned, he found himself rusting out of doors, before being saved and returned to his original, working condition.
Dr Piero Fiorito (maker) / Jerry Wallace (owner) / The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

In our vision of the future, the world seems to be crawling with robots. From the terrifying cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator (1984) to the dutiful android portrayed by Michael Fassbinder in Prometheus (2012), humanoid robots have starred in sci-fi cinema for decades.

In fact, mechanical men (and women) have been alive in our imaginations for half a millennium. This blockbuster exhibition at London’s Science Museum explores the fascinating history.

Featuring more than 100 robots, the exhibition gives visitors a chance between February and September to witness the evolution of robotics, moulded over the years by religious beliefs, the industrial revolution and, of course, pop culture.

The exhibition features historic robot relics dating back to the 16th century, such as a clockwork monk built for King Philip II of Spain; it still works, though is rarely wound up for the sake of preservation.

Also showcased is Cygan (pictured above) – an eight-foot tall aluminium humanoid created in 1957 that originally had the ability, thanks to 13 electric motors and about 300,000 parts, to walk, turn its head and lift its arms. It was controlled by radio signals and rudimentary voice commands.

These rarities are strictly look but don’t touch. There are, however, 12 working models in the exhibition that visitors can interact with.

With modern-day research labs and 3D-printed working models exhibited, visitors can see how far the robotics industry has come, and that as the pace of robotic engineering accelerates, the talking, thinking feeling robots of science-fiction are fast becoming a reality.

Articulated manikin – This tiny model was used to illustrate the articulation of the human body. It’s similar to an illustration in Hieronymus Fabricius’s Surgical Works, first published in 1582.
The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Originally built in 1928 by Captain Richards & A.H. Reffell, Eric was one of the world’s first robots. Built less than a decade after the word robot was first used, he travelled the globe with his makers and amazed crowds in the UK and USA, before disappearing forever. In May 2016, 861 backers joined our Kickstarter campaign to bring Eric back to life. Thanks to this support we worked with artist and robot builder Giles Walker to recreate Eric, keeping his appearance as close to the original as possible. Eric has now been saved for the nation as part of our permanent collection.
The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

As a toy, the robot became an international phenomenon. This Super astronaut robot made in Japan in 1970 demonstrates how quickly ideas about what robots should look like were created and spread around the world.
The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

One of the first robots outside of Japan to wobble forward on two legs, Bipedal Walker was built by a visionary group of amateur roboticists in London. Their aim was to create a robot that could walk by falling forward and catching itself – just like a human.
Designed by David Buckley and made by the Shadow Robotics Project Group, London, 1987-1997. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

This mischievous robotic receptionist greeted visitors to King’s College London from 2003 until 2014, dispensing directions, information and attitude with a cocky tilt of her head. Inhka was one of only three ever built and the only one of her kind to interact with the public for so long. Now retired from the reception desk at King’s, Inhka will star in Robots.
Built by Matthew Walker, c 2003 / The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

An arm from CRONOS/ECCE1, the first anthropomimetic robot (a robot with a body structure based on a human), 2005.
The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Robina Partner Robot created by Toyota Motor Co., Japan, c.2007.
The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Nao V5 Evolution humanoid robot Created by Aldebaran Robotics, France, c.2016
The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Robots
Science Museum, London
Open till 3 September, 2017

Explore #robotics
Anthea Batsakis is a freelance journalist in Melbourne, Australia.
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