According to Smithsonian.com, yesterday was the 78th anniversary of the first aired science fiction television show (no, it wasn’t Dr. Who). No, when the BBC made the landmark decision to look to the future for its ideas, it went with a live recording of the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).
“Written by Karel Čapek in 1920, R.U.R. is a cornerstone not just for science fiction, but also real-life technological advancements – famously, Čapek coined the Czech word “robota” to mean an artificially created person, which was later translated into English as “robot.” On the surface, however, Rossum’s robots have very little to do with the various machines that use the term today. His idea more closely matches what we’d consider clones.
[R.U.R.] imagined its artificial servants not as metal men of nuts and bolts, but as biological products, much like clones. Domin, the robot-factory manager in the play, cheerfully gives a tour pointing out “the spinning mill for nerves. The spinning mill for veins. The spinning mill where miles and miles of digestive tract are made at once.” These first robots were fleshy, goopy beings that grew like biological critters. In the play, robots are basically human bodies borne of mechanical production and process.
The Smithsonian adds,
“Rossum’s robots may be biological in nature, but they set the blueprint for all of science fiction’s robot uprisings, from The Terminator to The Matrix. At first, most of the human characters in R.U.R. see the robots as little more than appliances made in human shape, but as the robots become fed up with their place in society, they rebel. Eventually, they drive humanity toward extinction only to learn that they themselves cannot reproduce without the aid of their former masters.”
RUR aired on February 11, 1938, just two years after the BBC was first launched. Certainly the special effects were no more than wooden props and a lot of tin foil, but that’s not too far behind SciFy’s current film budget today. When you watch Battlestar Galactica, or Heroes, or Dr. Who, or anything on television that borrows from the future to tell stories today, you can thank the BBC, Capek, and the clones of Rossum’s Universal Robots.