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.
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.
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.
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.
- Tin Toy Robots, Wind Up Toys, Robot, Tin Toys, Tin Robot, Vancouver, BC, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
tintoyrobot is a web store in Vancouver for classic tin toys. All are battery operated or tin windup.
- Dalek Production - Visit the home of the Dalek Supreme
A Dalek and Doctor Who Fan site, for all lovers of Sci-Fi; but even more for all Dalek lovers!
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.
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
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.
Robot TV Stars
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.
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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.
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.
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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Robonut, A Brief History of Toy Robots:
Robots and Androids: