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