Robot Museum

The Science Museum in London will host a unique exhibition for seven months.The exhibition is open at the Science Museum in central London from February 8 to September 3, 2017.

Introductory speeches are commonplace at press meetings, but far rarer is for one of them to be delivered by a robot. RoboThespian, a lanky, luminescent, human-like robot, who will be on display at the London Science Museum’s blockbuster exhibition charting the history of robots, is a charismatic speaker, with the animated intonation of a confident orator, and digital eyes that focus and look around in an eerily-human way.

Precisely when robots came to be created does of course depend on one’s definition of a robot, and, as curator Ben Russell points out, there are 30 or 40 different characterisations. The exhibition links robots to our quest to “recreate ourselves in mechanised form” and therefore takes the starting point as around 500 years ago, when in the 16th century, the quest to understand the workings of the human body spurred the creation of mechanical devices.

On display is one of the earliest of such automated pieces: an automaton monk from 1560, created for Philip II of Spain, which could pray and walk across the table, moving its lips and raising its crucifix. There’s a spectacular silver swan from the 18th century that attracted huge crowds at the time with its ability to elegantly sway and pick up ornamental fish and lots of other fascinating mechanical pieces from across the world, that pushed the boundaries of science as was known at the time.

However it wasn’t till the 20th century that the word “robot” was coined: derived from the Czech word “robota” which means forced labour, and which was used by author Karel Čapek in his 1920 play about artificial humans, Rossum’s Universal Robots. It was also at this stage that robots began to take the shape that we traditionally associate with them —the metallic, somewhat humanoid figures that have dominated literature and film. There’s a replica of one of the earliest — the ‘Maria’ robot used in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolish in 1927, and ‘Eric’, one of the earliest ones made in the U.K.’

These were beings that unlike their predecessors ran on electrical batteries and radio control. On display is Cygan, a massive 500-kilo Italian robot from 1957, which is driven by 13 electric motors and has spent many years performing at shows.

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