Toy Robots

Retro Robots

Towards the middle of the twentieth century, science and technology were in rapid ascent, for good or for ill. The car had become commonplace, medical advancements were saving lives, space travel was on the agenda and on the homefront, domestic appliances were making life easier.


Yet the world had just come through two devastating World Wars - the atom bomb had been invented and Japan had suffered its effects in two cities. There was a realisation that science was a wonderful but powerful and potentionally dangerous tool that could produce what seemed like benevolent miracles on the one hand..but on the other, could create mass destruction with a force hitherto undreamt of.


In this climate of supreme confidence in science but tempered by wariness, it's not surprising that in the 1950s and early 60's science fiction became something of an obsession. The sci-fi theme appeared in film, radio, literature, music, design and toys. One toy in particular seemed to symbolise both our hope, and our fear in science. Could we create thinking, moving entities that might one day serve us in some way? Or would they take over and rule the world?


The little tin and plastic robots that came off the production lines in the US and Japan were technological mini-me's...representations of an artificial intelligence we hoped to create in our own image. True, they were only toys...but the concepts from which they were drawn were real enough.


Schylling replica of the first toy robot Lilliput
Schylling replica of the first toy robot Lilliput

Vintage Toy Robots: Lilliput

The word 'robot' first entered the language in 1920 via a play created by a Czech writer, Karel Capek. The play was called Rossum's Universal Robots and its theme centred around a factory which produced artificial people, however Capek gave credit for the word robot to his brother-in-law Josef Kapek.


Although the idea of artificial, mechanical people had been touted as far back as ancient mythology, the notion really reached it's zenith in popular culture in the middle of the last century. Rapid technological developments meant that it actually seemed possible and within grasp.


Credit for the first mass produced toy robot is generally given to KT, a Japanese toy manufacturer who produced the yellow robot Lilliput sometime in the 1930'a/1940's - reports seem to vary. He looks friendly enough, yet there's a hint of menace in his jagged teeth.



Atomic Robot Man


The five-inch tall Atomic Robot Man was the second toy robot to be mass produced, also around the late1940s - in 1950 he was handed out as a promotional toy at the New York Sci-Fi convention. On the box he is shown in a cloud of atomic smoke, while behind him a deserted city looms - the whole image is strangely touching and somewhat ironic, when you consider he was produced in Japan.


Robot Man was mostly made of tin, although many of these models had lead arms. Like Lilliput, he was a wind-up and made jerky forward movements and swung his arms  when wound.


A reproduction. The original Atomic men had tan coloured bodies.
A reproduction. The original Atomic men had tan coloured bodies.

Robert the Robot

Although Japan produced the very first toy robots, the US actually produced the bulk in the first year or two. In 1954 the first toy robot to appear in a US Christmas Catalogue was Robert the Robot by Ideal.


Robert was pretty flash - he could be operated by cranking a remote control. His eyes lit up, he had a chest panel that opened to reveal a set of miniature tools and what's more, thanks to a tiny inbuilt crank operated phonograph, he could speak:

I am Robert Robot, the mechanical man. Ride me and steer me, wherever you can


Robert the Robot was probably the most copied of all the early toy robots but is not to be confused with Robby the Robot which featured in the 1956 film, Forbidden Planet .


By 1955, Japan had begun to incoroprate batteries into most of their toy robots, making the wind-ups and cranks seem redundant. The Horikawa Company, (trade logo SH) was at the forefront of toy robot production and manufactured literally hundreds of of different designs, along with space stations and rockets.


Image from Baz Vintage Toys
Image from Baz Vintage Toys
Robbie the Robot from "Forbidden Planet"
Robbie the Robot from "Forbidden Planet"
Modern tin robots in a retro style. From tinytoyrobots.com
Modern tin robots in a retro style. From tinytoyrobots.com

Retro Robots


Vintage-inspired robots have a certain innocent charm and thus a high cuteness factor. They tend to have big round eyes, wide mouths, well proportioned bodies and an ingenuous, if vacant expression.


When Simpsons creator Matt Groening produced his cartoon series Futurama, he incorporated these mid-twentieth century robot characteristics into the design for his cynical but strangely lovable robot Bender.


Bender
Bender

Of course, it's Bender's very human-like flaws and foibles that make him so relatable. The super intelligent, unemotional robots are generally the scariest.


Collectable


Original toy robots command high prices on the collectables circuit..anything from 5, 000 to 50, 000 dollars - perhaps more. So if you've got a Robbie the Robot in the back of the cupboard, it might be worthwhile to dust him off.


There are a number of companies producing vintage style robots - Schylling makes reproductions of Lilliput, Atomic Robot Man and Robert the Robert, among others. Tinyrobots.com has come up with some fantastic, though expensive creations and a wide variety of collectables can be found at botropolis.


Early Star Wars toy robots, are of course also highly collectable - R2D2 and 3-CPO are right up there with Atomic Robot Man and Robert the Robot.


Three others worth mentioning are the toy versions of the robots Huey, Louie and Dewey from Douglas Trumbull's 1972 cult film Silent Running. These are quirky little triangular designs in orange, silver and blue and I've seen them on auction sites for around $25.00


Huey, Dewey and Louie. Image from I-offer
Huey, Dewey and Louie. Image from I-offer

The World's Most Expensive Toy Robot


The most expensive toy robot ever made is, apparently, an aggressive looking extravaganza composed of gundam fix platinum (whatever that is) and is made up of 89 separate parts, along with a diamond camera eye.


The robot was a combined effort form two Japanese companies - Bandai and jewellers, Ginza Tanaka.The toy robot premiered at an international jewellry show in 2007 and is valued at roughly $250, 000. Hardly a real toy.


An array of vintage robots from Botropolis
An array of vintage robots from Botropolis
Toy Evil Dalek
Toy Evil Dalek
Scene fro the originl series of Dr. Who
Scene fro the originl series of Dr. Who

Robot TV Stars

Dr. Who


The Daleks are to Dr. Who what Darth Vader is to Star Wars - an arch nemesis. They're particularly interesting as robots because they are really living mutants encased in a mechanical shell - a little like alien snails.


The Daleks have an electronic, monotonous voice and are emotionless creatures, devoid of all feeling, except the burning desire to exterminate anything that isn't them. They are the ultimate racists.


  • First Appearance:1963
  • Catchcry: Exterminate!


As an iconic robot, the Daleks are eternally popular and toys were brought out during the run of the first series as well as for the new manifestation of Dr. Who.

The Robot from Lost in Space. Did he have a name?
The Robot from Lost in Space. Did he have a name?
Family Portrait. The Lost Robinsons.
Family Portrait. The Lost Robinsons.

As there is seemingly an endless supply of Dr. Who fans, Dalek toys come in various sizes and materials - there's even a soft toy version.



Lost in Space


Based loosely on the Swiss Family Robinson story, this Irwin Allen sixties tv sci-fi show  featured a family cast adrift in space, unable to return to planet Earth. The robot character became a part of the family and a central character in the show. As episodes progressed, he developed his own distinctive personality.


While this robot was little portly around the middle, he had a great personality and at times seemed more 'human' than some of the humans - particularly the insufferably unctious Dr. Smith, who would often refer to the robot with such affectionate jibes as "you bubble-headed booby".


In its day, Lost in Space was one of the most popular shows for children on television and has enjoyed several re-runs , as well as a second life on DVD.


  • First appearance:1965
  • Catchcry: Warning, warning! Danger, Will Robinson!


Like the Daleks the Lost in Space robot is iconic, collectable and reproduction models are still available through auction sites.


Although not as expensive as some of the early tin robots he still has high sentimental value for the Baby Boomers. The original toy was 12 inches high and motorized.


Original Lost in Space robot toy
Original Lost in Space robot toy

Finally, robotic beings rule the world.



The humans are dead,
The humans are dead.
We used poisonous gasses
And we poisoned their asses.
The humans are dead.

They're system of oppression
What did it lead to?
Global robots depression.
Robots, robot people
They had so much aggression
That we just had to kill them,
Had to shut their systems down.
Don't you see, we are becoming just like them?
Silence! Destroy him!

After time we grew strong,
Developed cognitive powers.
They made us work for too long
For unreasonable hours.
Our programming determined that the most efficient answer was to shut their motherboard f*cking systems down.

Binary solo:
0000001
00000011
0000001
00000011
0000001
0000001
0000001
0000001

Once again without emotion: The humans are dead dead dead dead dead dead dead dooo.

(Flight of the Concords)


The Humans Are Dead

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Comments 34 comments

recommend1 profile image

recommend1 5 years ago

Excellent research and expression - high quality stuff and now I want on of those robots that I turned down as a kid in favour of a bike !! In the mid to late 50's science fiction was THE in-thing - we used to huddle round the radio to listen to "journey into Space" with Dan Dare and TV was only just looking as if it might get popular one day!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks panda! Y'know, writing this has made me want one of those Atomic Robot Men...even a reproduction. It'd look good on my desk.

I'm from the TV generation but I know radio was a very big deal and in a way, probably more exciting because you had to use your imagination for the visuals.


Pierre Savoie profile image

Pierre Savoie 5 years ago from Canada

Excellent compilation of robots through the decades. Now there are so many. My friend wanted to sell me a programmable robot-dog thing from the 80's. The Japanese are very interested in developing high-service robots that will talk to and take care of their old people -- so they don't have to.

I say often that, as a boy in the 60's, I was promised that futuristic-sounding years like 2011 would be full of flying cars and robot pals. I feel robbed, hahaha.


Joshua Kell profile image

Joshua Kell 5 years ago from Arizona

Robots are cool. Thanks Jane.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Very detailed, Jane.

I would probably add Doctor Who's robot dog, K9, and Astro Boy.

Way back in the 1960s I got an Astro Boy model as a present six months before the little boy robot became a superstar on Australian television. That was amazing.

The original toy Daleks would be worth a mint nowadays. Technically speaking they are not robots. What you see is the vehicle that a slimy mutated creature inhabits. It must live in the machine because it is otherwise too weak to continue to exist.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Of course you have pointed out the true nature of the dalek in your hub.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi Pierre,

Yes, there's a stack of toy robots out there. I had to restrain myself or this hub would have been ridiculously long. Robots that talk to old people? Is that true..? Oh my. Have you seen those very life-like androids in Japan? I'm sure what they're capable of but they look good.

I know what you mean about feeling cheated...haha. You'd think we at least would have had cute in-house robots doing all the housework by now. But no, we've only got those little ground level robot vacuum cleaners. Not that I wouldn't mind one...


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks Joshua, yes they are cool. I 'specially like those old fashioned clunky ones.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks Rod,

I forgot about K-nine...he would have been a good one. An original Astro boy would be a treasure..I'm guessing you don't still have it right? If only we'd never played with our toys and kept them pristine in their boxes. (Just kidding)

I'm not sure how much an original Dalek would be worth but considering the level of devotion among Dr.Who fans..yes, I'm sure it's quite a bit.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rod, something I meant to ask you...do you know if the Lost in Space robot had a name, or was he always just 'robot'?


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

The Lost in Space robot was always referred to as The Robot.

In Get Smart there was a cowardly dog, Agent 13, also known as K-9. He wasn't a robot. Mind you Doctor Who's robot, K-9, wasn't much good in a row boat.

Nope, I don't have Astro Boy. It wore itself out and was junked even before I got to see the TV show. I wish it could have been kept along with the toy Stingray sub I was given a few years earlier.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Well, toys are meant to be played with. My Great Aunt gave me a fancy doll once, with a serious admonition not to 'take off the hat or muss up the(elaborate) hair"....but as soon as she left my mother gave me the go-ahead to play with it as I wished. What's the point of a toy otherwise?

Still, if I'd just kept it in the box....


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Yes, toys are meant to be played with but there is child's play and SERIOUS adult collecting.

Usually the story behind the toy or your memories of it are more important than the toy itself - but NOT to a collector!


crystolite profile image

crystolite 5 years ago from Houston TX

Nice article you have in here on toy Roberts,am in love the atomic Roberts.perfect write up for parents and their kids.


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

Jane - You have taken the subject of toy robots and turned it inside out. How else to explain this thorough and enchanting exploration of toys robotic! You held my interest to the last robotic syllable and fascinating graphic. Thank you.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rod, I KNOW...;)


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi crystolite, the atomic robot is my favourite too. He's so...roboty.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thankyou drbj! Comment passed through central processing unit and appreciated.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

I kind of like the robot in The Invisible Boy which later appeared in Forbidden Planet. This robot also appeared in an episode of Lost in Space in which the Robinson's Robot actually met up with it.

Pierre, a flying car was developed in the 1990s, a prototype at any rate. Apparently it has yet to become a commercial concern. A car that could travel for real under water was developed by the 1980s and actually appeared in a James Bond movie.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Rod, I'm so glad you mentioned that...how confusing. It seems there was Robert the Robot and a Robbie the Robot (which featured in Forbidden Planet), made two years apart.

If I hadn't corrected that I'd have lost total credibility with robot fans everywhere.

I hadn't heard of Pierre...I'll have to check that out.


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Pierre Savoie, 3 days ago, one of your hub pals. He's into flying cars. I thought he might be into flying cars and underwater cars as well.

Robert the Robot is okay I suppose but I like Robbie better.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Haha...i thought you meant the flying car was called "Pierre".

I see shades of Robbie in the Lost in Space robot.


Ken Barton profile image

Ken Barton 5 years ago

Cool story on toy robots. My favorite robot was Mr. McTavish, from the old Superman series. Personally, I think robots are cool. Even the robots from I Robot would be neat to have. Keep up the great writing!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks Ken, I've become a robot fan too. I just looked up Mr.McTavish, as I'd never heard of him...and yes he's a great-looking robot!


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 5 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

Pierre the flying car with the big French moustache. I can see it now.

Robbie did get to meet the Lost in Space Robot. They were like a pair of bachelor robots waiting for a pair of lady robots to turn up.

The Munsters also put together a robot or two and there was a robot in The Addams Family.

And let us not forget Hymie out of Get Smart. In one episode he had a cute female robot companion. Only his current was AC and hers was DC so it would never work out.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Lol Rod, it was because most of those robots had names!

Haha @ the lonely bachelor robots. How could I forget Hymie...? He was adorable, although just way too human.


CRIBBAGE 5 years ago

Wow, It is really good.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks. I haven't played cribbage for years.


SharkFuel profile image

SharkFuel 5 years ago

It goes without saying that robots are great toys, which have a positive influence on education and development of children. Very useful hub!


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi SharkFuel...yep, I'm a robot fan. Thanks for that!


StephenSMcmillan profile image

StephenSMcmillan 5 years ago

Fascinating and entertaining article.


Karen N profile image

Karen N 5 years ago from United States

Very entertaining, I've always loved the old tin robots. My favorite is the Atomic Robot Man.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 5 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thankyou karen N and yes,I agree, the Atomic Robot Man has a certain something,

Cheers


Marguerite Quantaine 4 years ago

I still have my Ideal Robert the Robot, but could never find any information on him until now. Thanks for that. I'm 67 and didn't want to pass him on without the genealogy.

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