1939 – “I, Robot” by Eando Binder

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 24, 2018

When I reread “I, Robot” by Eando Binder today, a science fiction story from 1939, I wondered just how much Earl and Otto knew about robots, where did they get their knowledge, how much of their speculation was original with them, and how much did they borrow from earlier writers. I also wondered how wide-spread the concept of robots was in 1939, a term only coined in 1920. The concept of what would eventually be called a digital computer was first described by Alan Turing in a 1936 paper. I doubt the Binders had read it. Artificial intelligence wouldn’t become a concept until the 1950s. What kind of imaginative feat had these two brothers achieved writing a short story for a lowly pulp magazine?

Here is a nice graph from Google that shows how often the word robot was used over time. I wish I could track down all the science fiction stories that used it from 1923 when the English translation first appeared until “I, Robot” in 1939.

robot - eytomology

Eleven years before Isaac Asimov’s famous collection of robot stories, I, Robot, a short story appeared in the January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories called “I, Robot” by Eando Binder. Asimov admits his later robot stories were inspired by this one, and he had protested his editors naming his collection with the same name.

“I, Robot” is the first person narrative of a robot named Adam Link, and Amazing Stories would eventually run ten of his tales between 1939-1942. In 1965 Paperback Library came out with a fix-up novel based on many of these stories called Adam Link – Robot. Currently, this novel version is available from Wildside Press on Amazon as an ebook. However, if you’d like to read these stories as Amazing Stories presented them, they are available online as digital .pdf scans:

Amazing Stories 1939-01

The first two stories were combined and altered for a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits, and later that episode was remade for a 1995 episode of a revival series of The Outer Limits. Both shows featured Leonard Nemoy. In the 21st-century we’re becoming robot crazy, so it’s very hard to imagine a time when people didn’t know about the concept of robots. This 1939 story is a far cry from Ex Machina (2014) and Humans (2015- ) yet it dealt with the same themes those shows do. Until humanity has real self-aware robots to coexist with we really won’t know how we will react.

I’ve read “I, Robot” by Earl and Otto Binder (Eando) a couple times over the last century, and today, when I started Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction (combining Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1 (1939) and Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 2 (1940)) I wasn’t in the mood to read it again. Boy, am I glad I did. As my recent posts attest, I’ve been in the mood to read old science fiction short stories and I had bought all six of the Golden Years of SF series which contain the first 12 of the 25 of The Great SF Stories series (1939-1963).

[These six anthologies collect the twelve years of science fiction before I was born. I bought the combined double-deckers reprints because I can’t afford to collect the original 25 paperbacks edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg because they generally run $10-60 on ABEbooks and eBay. (Ouch!)]

Now that I’m rereading science fiction with a deconstructive mindset I realized immediately that “I, Robot” was a goldmine of a historical SF story. The Binders imagined a mechanical man with an electronic mind that could learn and was mentally much like a human. This was 1939 before the world knew about computing machines (the word computer back then meant a human job classification). Adam Link has television like eyes that see in shades of blue (like early TVs, well before color TV), and microphones for ears. The Binders imagine an artificial brain that has a perfect memory. Not only that, the Binders imagine a kind of machine learning phase for Adam Link. The bulk of the story worries about how humans will act when meeting a conscious, self-aware artificial being. “I, Robot” is modeled on Frankenstein, which is quite satisfying because Adam Link is a fictional descendant of Mary Shelley’s monster.

The term “robot” was first coined in the 1920 Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), but the artificial creatures in that story were made from synthetic organic matter, more like replicants in Blade Runner. The history of robots is ancient, but they have mostly been magical automata and mechanical. In the 19th-century we had The Steam Man of the Prairies, which some say was the first science fiction dime novel in 1868.

The_steam_man_of_the_prairies_(1868)_big

The steam man was just an all-purpose versatile machine. I never read it, but my earliest memories as a kid include a robot, the Tin Woodman of Oz, that first appeared in the book The Wizard of Oz in 1900. I first encountered this robot-like-man in the 1939 film in the 1950s. The Tin Man was originally a human named Nick Chopper who kept losing body parts to an enchanted ax and having them replaced by a tinsmith.

TikTokofOz_BookCover_lores

The next proto-robot I remember encountering was Tik-Tok, after discovering that The Wizard of Oz movie was based on a series of books. The Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum was eighth in the series coming out in 1914, but I didn’t discover it until 1962 while in elementary school. Tik-Tok was a wind-up machine that could talk, but little was made of describing how he actually worked. Like talking animals in fantasy stories, talking machines were for fun and not genuine speculation about creating artificial intelligence.

Metropolis

The next robot I know about that existed before “I, Robot” was from the 1927 German film Metropolis.  Like R.U.R., Metropolis is a social commentary on the working classes. I’m not sure Thea von Harbou was concerned philosophically with artificial intelligence, and I’m not sure where I can find out. Evidently, the concept of a robot was easily embraced by our society, even ones that could act human, but when did folks begin to think seriously how to create an artificial mind? (I’ve since found out the word robot isn’t used in the film, but the 1927 placards did list some actors as robots.

That’s what’s so fun about “I, Robot.” The Binders were putting everything into place. They theorized a metallic brain of “iridium-sponge” cells, not as fancy sounding as Asimov’s positronic brain but they did assume it would need to store information. The Binders made no hint of computer programming. I guess they assumed a being with senses would program itself through learning. The artificial thinking was still relegated to the magic happens kind of hand waving.

Helen O Loy by Lester del Rey

In 1938, “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey came out in Astounding Science Fiction. I’m pretty sure the Binders could have read that one. I recently listened to that story, and it is another proto-AI tale. Two men who own a robot repair shop put together a robot woman they both fall in love with. Again, where did they get the word robot? How quickly did a Czech word from 1920 spread to America? Did Lester del Rey know of the story, “A Wife Manufactured to Order” from 1895? How do ideas spread? And is inventing an artificial wife something that just comes to guys. What story lays claim to inventing the sexbot?

Wikipedia has a wonderful list of fictional robots. It gives me several stories I need to track down to read. I’ve already read some of the Professor Jameson stories by Neil R. Jones from the early 1930s. His aliens had their minds transferred to mechanical bodies — not AI robots. I need to read The Metal Giants (1926) by Edmond Hamilton and Automata (1929) by S. Fowler Wright, both science fiction writers.

I’m going to assume the Binders were inspired by science fiction. Could there have been nonfiction books theorizing about robots before 1939? When does science fiction precede science and when does it follow? I’ve always assumed rockets for space travel and mechanical robots for artificial minds preceded science, but I could be wrong.

I did find An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines by Kathleen Richardson that has a chapter on robots in fiction. It looks promising but is too expensive. Even the Kindle edition is $35.99.

Someone needs to write a book about robots like James Gleick did for time travel in his book Time Travel: A History. “I, Robot” is an amazing story in the evolution of ideas about robots. The Binders suggested an iridium-sponge for a brain. I suppose we can think of our current computers with a silicon sponge. They didn’t have enough information to guess about computers. Earlier stories only imagined robots having clockwork brains. The Binders speculations about a robot having to learn are also insightful.

Human-constructed creatures have been around a long time in our thoughts, and we’re getting very close to creating them. I think it’s fascinating to see how the idea evolved.

Recommended Reading

 

Updates

I’ve found some earlier citations in science fiction from The Encylopedia of Science Fiction.

JWH

17 thoughts on “1939 – “I, Robot” by Eando Binder”

  1. “Oh, my!” “Captain, that does not compute!”
    Good questions JW. I’m not the anthropological detective you are. Nor am I as relentless a researcher. However, it occurs to me that the cultural referents in the decades since this first started will end up being a big deal.
    What is the difference when a being is described as a machine, but is imbued with most of the classic human traits, and skill sets; and who is a replacement for a meat-based human being – and something completely foreign? I.e. a machine that is born of other machines?

    I have no clue. But it does make for interesting thought.

    1. I’d like to trace how AI came to science fiction. For a while robots were side-kicks and servants. When did we and science fiction writers realize intelligent machines could be much smarter than us? And like you suggest, if we build a machine smarter than us, and it builds an even smarter machine, what’s the next stage after robots when they create their own replacements?

  2. As I was saying on your last post,science fiction as a literary form,is probably nearly as old as storytelling and fictional writing itself.Apparently,mechanical people were to be found in ancient mythologies.They don’t seem to have had much scientific basis,but the origin of robots in SF,like SF itself it seems,is rooted in very old,early writings.Considering the long history of mechanical “people” in one form of writing or another,I’m not sure if it would have been so hard for the story you’re discussing to have been written,especially given the brilliant imaginations of science fiction authors.

    1. I’m giving the Binders credit for imagining a solid-state brain. Before that writers assumed robot minds were mechanical. Even in the 1950s. PKD imagined robots have minds of gears, relays, vacuum tubes, and tape loops.

      1. All credit due,should be given to the Binders for their innovation then,but in the 1950s,Dick imagined a robot,in “Imposter”,which is actually in an existential crisis,who isn’t even aware it’s a robot,as are those in the later,brilliant “We Can Build You”. These seems to leave speculation for what is and isn’t mechanical existence.

  3. Karel Capek’s play, RUR, was successful in Europe and America. It didn’t take long at all for the English translation of the play to make it to America. The term robota or robot was the idea of his brother, Josef Capek, who was an artist/illustrator/cartoonist. He designed the costumes for the play. The cubism art form was influential at the time. Some of Josef’s cubist paintings resembled robots as early as 1914. I think the visual arts help spread the use of the word.

    1. I’d like to find out more about the popularity of the play in America. Evidently, it was popular enough for the word robot to get passed around, and its concept. It’s sort of interesting to compare the organic humanoid robot of R.U.R. and the organic replicant of Blade Runner. Both were meant to be slaves or to symbolize slavery.

      Why did the word robot jump to mechanical men? Why don’t we have separate words for artificial beings that are inorganic and organic?

      1. But we do have separate words, sort of: “robot” for mechanicals of any shape and “android” for organic/synthetic humanoids. Or at least we did have until certain people started getting cute with neologisms like “droid” and “replicant”. Or “artificial person” as Bishop from Aliens would have it. As you say, how “robot” wound up on the Mechanical side of the fence is an interesting question.

        The idea of mechanical servants goes back at least as far as Greek tales about Hephaestos. Perhaps because labor/management conflict must go back as far as servitude itself. After all, automation isn’t preferred just because it’s more profitable – it is in fact sometimes more costly in monetary terms. Maybe stories like Helen O’Loy likewise involve a fantasy of simplifying human interaction, but it’s an open question whether a self-aware AI would really have less “free will” (whatever that is) than we attribute to ourselves. Indeed, almost all of Asimov’s classic robot stories are concerned with the idea that even rigidly programmed rules would result in unexpected actions.

        James, since you mention Ex Machina, I’d like to recommend the similar themed and underappreciated movie The Machine, which came out around the same time. The script bounces off several related tropes, beginning with Turing tests on processor-based AI programs. It then moves on to the notion of “recording” a human, including brain patterns. These recordings are used not so much as an actual brain transfer or cloning process, but as a template for a new artificial form of life (or is it?). There are also cyborgs – humans with prosthetic brain implants – which are treated as yet another evolutionary AI variant. All this runs alongside a more conventional thriller plotline but the film is subtle enough to bear rewatching.

      2. PJ, I’ve always thought android simply meant a robot intended to look like a human, but it could still be mechanical like Data, C3PO, and the Terminator. I believe organic explanations for robots come from writers and screenwriters who don’t want to explain how a machine could look perfectly human, like replicants. Most modern androids in shows like Ex Machina and Humans are mechanical on the inside but have a biological looking skin.

        Actually, I see no real purpose to organic robots. Humans can make them quite easily. The challenge has always been to build a machine that’s equal or better than us. Whether it looked human or not was another issue. Androids were merely robots that we wanted to look human or somewhat human.

        I believe Asimov took a wrong track by assuming robots would be programmed. We’ve come to learn that AI must use learning to develop intelligence, and we won’t be able to control what they learn. We even have trouble following how they learn. So the Three Laws of Robotics won’t happen.

        For a while, and this includes the stories in the 1930s and 1940s, writers assumed we could create robots without worrying too much how it would be done. It wasn’t until computers and AI that writers started thinking about the exact details.

        I’ll track down The Machine, it sounds interesting.

      3. It turns out that the German word for robot is Maschinenmensch or “machine-person”. So, in Metropolis, Robot Maria is also called the Maschinenmensch. The two words became interchangeable over time. Similarly, as organic and inorganic forms become more and more possible then the words for them will evolve as well. Currently, I suspect, most of these words are considered fiction by the general public.
        As to R.U.R.’s popularity, here are about a dozen clippings from 1921-1923 UK and US newspapers: (https://photos.app.goo.gl/5gLW0Y0IlDTKnlE03) There are many more to see.

      4. Thanks for taking the trouble to provide those clippings. I’ll study them. I always imagined R.U.R. being a minor production. I didn’t know it had such widespread notoriety. No wonder the word “robot” entered the lexicon so swiftly.

        Robert, are you a specialist in Capek?

      5. I’m not a Capek specialist per se, but studied him when i was a film student. I’m also a rigorous researcher.

  4. Little known fun fact: the word “robot” is in everyday use in South Africa. It is universally used to mean “traffic light”! True story.

  5. I was wondering whether you have THE VISUAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Brian Ash (1976)?

    It has excellent thematic articles, including one on robots. According to this book, the first use of the word “robot” in the relevant sense in a pulp magazine story was by David H. Keller in 1929: “The Threat of the Robot” (Science Wonder Stories, June 1929).

    The Encyclopedia can be accessed here: https://archive.org/details/visualencycloped00ashb

    1. I used to have a copy of The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction but I can’t find it now. Probably purged in one of my many efforts reduce my burden of possessions. I just found another copy on ABE for $3.48 including shipping and ordered it. Wish ordering books was that easy for you.

      1. I think it’s an underrated book. All the reviews of it I’ve seen are either negative or “meh”, but it’s a quality production. My copy is still in very near pristine condition after over 40 years. And by the way, I particularly enjoyed the timeline section in the front, which includes a short fiction timeline. Lots of stories to discover there!

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