Despite the fact that robotics is currently an active field that has revolutionized manufacturing, when one hears the word "robot," the images conjured are not those of industrial lever arms and actuators, but of human-shaped mechanical men.
Read the last SF Signal on Space Operas.
You have science fiction to thank for that. Robots are a recurring trope in the genre—largely because they allow writers to create cognitive estrangement, a situation that puts readers in a world different than their own, allowing them to view their own world from a different perspective.
Before They Were Robots
The appearance robots in science fiction predates the origin of the word itself. Perhaps the most memorable "Mechanical Man" from this era was Tik-Tok, the emotionless, spherical character from L. Frank Baum's Oz books. (Sadly, the Tin Man does not qualify. He's technically a cyborg—a human mechanically augmented when his cursed axe began cutting off his body parts. Never tell a science fiction fan that there's no difference between a cyborg and a robot; it hurts their feelings and you'll wind up on the business end of a condescending eye roll.) Tik-Tok the Mechanical Man was so-named because of the noise made by his clockwork innards, which required constant rewinding. As robots go, he was definitely high maintenance.
Rise of the Robots
Karel Capek coined the term "robot" in R.U.R. (short for Rossum's Universal Robots), a 1921 play that shows a contingent of artificial humans used for factory labor. The play is social commentary of workers' rights (there's that cognitive estrangement thing) and grapples with themes of human rights before it depicts a robot rebellion. (In 1924 Thea von Harbou and then-husband Fritz Lang co-wrote the Metropolis screenplay which dealt with similar themes.)
With a few exceptions—like Lester del Rey's 1938 story "Helen O'Loy" in which an ideal mechanical woman falls in love with her master—the early attitude toward robots was largely one of fear, that they'd somehow replace or overthrow their masters. In the 1940s, Isaac Asimov sought to overcome this "Frankenstein complex" by writing a series of stories that showed robots as mere tools, albeit complicated ones. He developed a set of ethical rules governing the behavior in their positronic pathways: The Three Laws of Robotics. Simply put, the laws factor in desirable properties of any tool: safety (a robot may not injure a human being through action or inaction); usefulness (a robot must obey humans, unless it conflicts with the first law); and longevity (a robot must protect its own existence, unless it conflicts with the first or second law).
Examination of Asimov's Three Laws was fertile ground for numerous puzzle-like short stories and novels. Memorable robots from that timeline include Robbie the robot, Andrew Martin (from the story "The Bicentennial Man" which was later made into a film) and R. Daneel Olivaw, who made appearances in several novels and became one of sf's most beloved characters.
While Asimov's robots usually exhibited human behavior, his weren't the only ones. Another human-like robot was Adam Link, the mechanical protagonist of Eando Binder's novel I, Robot. (Not to be confused with the Asimov robot story collection of the same name.) The Adam Link stories chronicle the robot's evolution from self-aware machine to human protector.
Asimov's snowballing pro-robot view did not go unanswered in the conversation of literature. John Sladek's response to Asimov's ethical robots was the novel Tik-Tok, where the titular robot (named after Baum's rotund Oz character) could do whatever he pleased, regardless of the consequences. Tik-Tok amused himself by committing crimes, making money and becoming vice president of the United States. Oh, and he was homicidal. Nope, these are definitely not Asimov's robots.
Next week, we'll look at some more robots. I command thee to return!
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.