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How Two Artists Invented the Word "Robot"

People have been making machines for a long time. By the 15th century, some of them could even be programmed to perform special tasks. And, just a few centuries later, Ada Lovelace (1815 — 1852) created the first “computer program” for the first automatic digital computer invented by Charles Babagge (1791 — 1871). The two main goals driving innovation have always been the same — to simplify our lives, and to test the limits of human creativity.

How Two Artists Invented the Word "Robot" | Scene from the play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek (1890 — 1938)

Although prototypes of various robots have existed for hundreds of years, the word robot is absent from all literary and scientific papers until the early part of the 20th century. That’s because it hadn’t been invented yet. This was changed by the musings of Karel Čapek (1890 — 1938) and Josef Čapek (1887 — 1945), a novelist and a painter, who happened to be brothers as well as collaborators.

How Two Artists Invented the Word "Robot" | Cover of the first edition of the play designed by Josef Čapek, Aventinum, Prague, 1920.

The creative duo worked closely from 1907 well into the 1920s. It was Karel who first catapulted the term robot into the the stream of human consciousness, but it was Josef who came up with it. It is based on the slavic word "robota," which means forced labor or drudgery. And it was the perfect term to describe the adversaries in Karel’s futuristic stage play, R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots. First published in 1920, it premiered in 1921.

“In 1922 the play was performed in an English translation in New York. And straightaway English-language sources started to record this new word robot: ‘an intelligent artificial being typically made of metal and resembling in some way a human or other animal’. The following year (1923) we find people being referred to as ‘robots’, and by 1927 (back in the United States) the new word was linked specifically to developments in what would later become known as ‘robotics’, and we have robot used in the sense ‘a machine capable of automatically carrying out a complex series of movements’.”

How Two Artists Invented the Word "Robot" | R.U.R. Playbill Booklet from 1939

The three-act drama was inspired by the horrifying events of WWI, when the ugly side of humanity was amplified by the destructive powers of science and technology. It was a cautionary tale meant to jolt the audience into a philosophical discussion about the impact of unbridled invention. Having been a student of philosophy, Karel’s work was often concerned with humanity’s efforts to break the holds of destiny and attain a deeper understanding of values.

How Two Artists Invented the Word "Robot" | U.S. WPA Federal Theatre Project poster for the production by the Marionette Theatre, New York, 1939.

In R.U.R., Rossum, a scientist who discovers the formula for creating lifelike androids, establishes a factory to produce and distribute these machines across the world. Another scientist decides to give them more human characteristics and traits, such as the capacity to feel pain. Years later, the androids that were first created to serve humans have now come to dominate them completely.

A summary from Penguin Randomhouse Publishing reads as follows:

How Two Artists Invented the Word "Robot" | Actors performing the robot rebellion scene from R.U.R. by Karel Čapek (1890 — 1938)

“Mass-produced as efficient laborers to serve man, Capek’s Robots are an android product—they remember everything but think of nothing new. But the Utopian life they provide ultimately lacks meaning, and the humans they serve stop reproducing. When the Robots revolt, killing all but one of their masters, they must strain to learn the secret of self-duplication. It is not until two Robots fall in love and are christened ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ by the last surviving human that Nature emerges triumphant.”

How Two Artists Invented the Word "Robot" | Final Scene (Act Three) in the 1923 stage production of R.U.R. (1920) by Karel Čapek

The work’s notoriety has faded over the years. “But in its time, the play was a sensation, with translations into more than 30 languages immediately after publication. Nearly 100 years on, apart from our obvious reliance on the play’s terminology and worldview, we still hear its echoes,” writes John Jordan, author of Robots (2016) and 3D Printing (2019). “The author and play title turn up as Easter eggs in such popular venues as Batman cartoons, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and Futurama: The people who portray our culture’s robots certainly know of their debt to Čapek, even if most of us do not.”

Today, robots are a normal part of our daily lives, and the term for them is a standard part of our daily lexicon. With multiple generations being exposed to robots both in life and through science fiction, it seems strange that it took this long for the word to come around, but it did, thanks — in part — to a couple of artist.

Note* All images are in the public domain.


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