The Sad Story of Eric, the UK's First Robot Who Was Loved Then Forsaken

Science Museum curator Ben Russell wants to raise £35,000 to rebuild Eric from scratch.

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May 19 2016, 10:00am

Eric the Robot. Image: Science Museum

When hulking metal humanoid Eric was built in 1928, it became known as the UK's first robot. The New York Press described it as the "perfect man," and as Eric toured both the UK and the world with his creators, it dazzled audiences with its stout tinny exterior and flashing teeth.

But one day, Eric disappeared without a trace.

Nobody knows if the robot was thrown out, or lost, but it's apparent that Eric—once lauded for its technical prowess—became an early victim of technological obsolescence. As the world moved on, Eric was forgotten.

It's pretty hard, however, to shake the honour of being the UK's first robot, and so to commemorate Eric's legacy, Science Museum curator Ben Russell last week launched a Kickstarter project to raise £35,000 ($51,000) to resurrect Eric based on archival records that he came across while preparing for a robot exhibition. George, the robot that was made after him, was bombed and destroyed in Surrey during the air raids of WWII.

"We thought that what had happened to Eric was an intriguing mystery. He'd been this amazing celebrity, but then he just vanished and nobody, not even his family, were sure what had happened to him," said Russell over the phone.

Russell is pairing up with artist and roboticist Giles Walker to revive Eric as best as he can for 21st century audiences, and to immortalise it forever in the canon of robot history.

While debates around robots nowadays centre predominantly around how they'll steal our jobs or be our carers, back in the 1920s they were were associated mainly with performance and wonder. Eric, for instance, opened the Society of Royal Engineer's annual exhibition to great aplomb when its human counterpart pulled out at the last minute. To open the speech, Eric moved its arms and head around and gave a speech.

"It wasn't just robots as science and men in white lab coats, so much of the history is connected with the idea of showmanship and spectacle," explained Russell. "What was fascinating about Eric was that his creators took the idea of what a robot could be and turned it into a physical thing."

Eric's creators, retired journalist W H Richards and engineer A H Reffell, grew up in times when robots were still limited to the confines of the human imagination. They would have been familiar, for example, with Czech writer Karel Čapek's 1920s play Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum's Universal Robots) that brought both the word and the idea of a "robot" into the UK's popular culture, as well as Fritz Lang's representation of robots in Maria, a lady bot that starred in the German film Metropolis.

By resurrecting Eric, Russell and Walker want to make people reevaluate the place of robots within our history and society at large.

"Eric was relatively simple. He was really an automaton, but the interesting thing about robots is how much extra stuff you read into them," said Russell.

"Right now, we're so used to being surrounded by technology that we're infused to a point where it's invisible, but in the 1920s it was the most amazing piece of sci-fi suddenly brought to life and that's what caught people's imaginations," he added.