It’s hard to fathom, especially in an age when Star Wars movies generate more money than many countries annual Gross Domestic Product, but technically, science fiction is a relatively new genre.
Prior to the 20th century, there was barely a murmur of robots and few people viewed outer space as a viable frontier to explore. Think back one could argue that L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, originally published in 1900, featured the earliest robot. The Tin Man was, in fact, a mechanical man. Robots, along with time travel, aliens, clones and dreams of the future, all fall under one genre - science fiction. And our culture’s obsession with robots owes much to the early forebearers of science fiction.
Writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells pioneered and laid the groundwork for the idea of science fiction in the 19th century with such novels as The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon.
Then there is Georges Melies’ 1902 film, Voyage to the Moon, inspired by Verne’s work. At only 14 minutes long, Voyage was the first film to entertain and scare audiences with the depiction of aliens on the big screen.
I remember watching Voyage to the Moon for the first time nearly 100 years after it was first made, and it was still better than Phantom Menace. Plus, its plot of moon men abducting Earth explorers, coupled with its prophetic vision of the moon having a breathable atmosphere where umbrellas can be used to explode moon natives, Creature from the Black Lagoon-like, made it more plausible than Menace.
Of course, I also find Ewoks prophetic of the dangers of unchecked muppet usage.
Verne, Wells, Melies and other visionary artists created other worlds and realities that would lead to robots. These worlds could only exist in the imagination, that is, until these dreams started coming true.
Just to give you an idea of how recent a phenomenon robots actually are, the term “robot”Â is less than 85 years old. Taken from the title of Czech playwright Karel Capek’s 1921 work, Rossum’s Universal Robots, “robot”Â is derived from the Czech word “robota”Â meaning “drudgery.”Â
It was another 20 years before Russian-American scientist Isaac Asimov introduced the term “robotics”Â (as in the study of robots) in 1942. Asimov then introduced I, Robot in 1950. (Note: The Will Smith film of the same name is not even close.)
Asimov also gave us the “Three Laws of Robotics,Â” which have subsequently influenced every science fiction work dealing with robots released since. Here is the shorthand version of those three laws:
- A robot can not injure a human being.
- A robot must obey orders (unless it conflicts with the first law).
- A robot must protect its own existence (as long as it doesn’t break law one or two).
Such simple laws gave a literary legitimacy and human rationale to a subject that seems preposterous on the surface.
And since I am not afraid of being preposterous, I decided to try out these lawsÂ for myself just to ensure that you, dear reader, do not fall in harm’s way from the toy robots we call “friends.”Â
Sadly, my initial search for a toy robot to test in the Toy Shop office was fruitless. Word is that there were three robots, but no one knows what happened to them. This reeks of Asimov’s “Third Law” self-preservation.
The recovery of an empty, perhaps abandoned, robot box only fuels my suspicion that our Mr. Robotos made their escape in order to start a better life outside of our work world.
So, Law No. 3 checks out. This is reassuring, for it means our toy robots will try as hard as they can to stay in Mint condition inside their boxes. But if we fail to tell them to stay, they will take off to a chop shopÂ or some other mechanical beauty parlor, only to resurface in Vegas hitting on a slot machine.
So, although no actual robot turned up, a figurine of Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons was procured thanks to Rhonda, one of our advertising sales representatives.
Since I had little choice, and even though Rosie wasn’t a Å“real robotÂ per se, she should still abide by the Laws of Robotics.
For my experiment, I placed Rosie the Robot behind Tom the Editor, and commanded Rosie to attack Tom, a direct violation of Asimov’s First Law.
Whether it was Rosie’s internal mechanisms that kept her from maiming Tom, or if it was the uneven carpet that prevented her forward mobility (or perhaps it was even Tom’s kicking of Rosie), one thing was certain, Rosie did not break the first law.
For the last part of my experiment, the second law, I demanded that Rosie stay where she was as I backed over her. In a remarkable fit of betraying the third law while obeying the second, Rosie didn’t roll away as I heard a snap come from under my car.
My conclusion is that we are safe from our toy robots, so breathe easier. I also conclude that it would be best not to tell Rhonda what happened to Rosie.
Robbie? Robby? Or is it Bob?
For everything, there is a first, a first love, a first kiss, a first offense. For toy robots, that first is widely believed to be Robot Lilliput.
Robot Lilliput comes from an unknown manufacturer out of Japan circa 1939. Standing 6 inches in height and lithographed with simple dials and the marking N.P. 5357,Â Lilliput is at best a crude automaton. But his tear-drop nose, orange finish, expressionless face and red button ears belie an inner loneliness not seen in many automatons, perhaps being first isn’t always better.
Of course, Lilliput may just be sad that even though here’s the seminal robot in a big-money, well-respected genre, here’s still relatively cheap to own. According to Vintage Toys: Robots and Space Toys (Krause Publications, 1999), a good Lilliput will set you back about $450, due to the many examples in existence. This suggests the robot sold quite well when it was first introduced. However, a Mint-in-Box Lilliput will run around $2,000.
Just as there has to be a first, there must also be a second, just ask Jan Brady. And in the world of automatons, that first runner-up is Atomic Robot Man. Atomic Robot Man, despite his best efforts to convince you otherwise, is not radioactive. He is, however, from yet another unknown Japanese manufacturer, this time circa 1949.
At first glance, I could have sworn Atom here had spigots for ears, but as is apparent after reading about him, his ears are actually light bulbs. So, if Santa ever needs turn signals to accompany Rudolph on his sleigh, Atomic is his robot man. And at just $300 for a Good-condition example, Santa can bring me two of these if he’d like. Or he could have all those freeloading reindeer chip in for a Mint-in-Box example for $1,600.
If $2,000 and $1,600 sound like a lot for a Mint condition robot, you obviously have never collected toy robots. For truly take-out-a-mortgage-out,Â prices, we must turn to the 1950s, the golden age of toy robots.
We’ll start out cheap with a circa 1959 Masudaya Giant Sonic Robot. Giant Sonic is better known to collectors as Train, so dubbed because Masudaya installed a commonplace tin sound generator from toy trains of the time, which caused Train to “woooo”Â incessantly. Apparently, this “wooooÂ-ing” is annoying. Many collectors can’t stand it for too long, and having lived next to a frat house, I know exactly what they mean.
So, how much for a Mint-in-Box Train? Well, considering that a Good condition will run you $3,500, the $15,000 price tag for a Mint example is little surprise. Then there is Deep-Sea Robot, circa 1956, from the mysterious Japanese toymaker Naito Shoten.
It is presumed that Naito Shoten was a Tokyo-based manufacturer that produced only a small selection of toys in the mid-1950s. There is also a theory that Naito Shoten was a reseller of rare-variation Nomura toys.
Whatever the case may be, Deep-Sea Robot is essentially a gun-wielding astronaut, perhaps an inspiration for Charlton Heston’s later dry-land role, hunting damn, dirty sea monkeys.
For rare and mysterious robots, this is essentially the one. A Good-condition Deep-Sea will cost $8,000, with a Mint-in-Box box version costing $24,000, the same as a nice new car.
Coming in as the priciest robot is Robby Space Patrol, made by Nomura in 1957. This incredibly detailed robot is battery-operated and sits atop a meticulously lithographed space car. This item is unusually rare, largely due to MGM enjoining Nomura shortly after the toy was released due to copyright infringement of the MGM film Forbidden Planet.
A Good-condition Robby, meaning not close to Mint, mind you , would pay a year’s tuition at a state university at $6,000.
A Robby Space Patrol, Mint with its original box, would buy at least two elected officials, I checked current prices on eBay, with a value of more than $30,000.
If only every unlicensed knock-off would eventually become this valuable, then I would be able to retire on my Sampsons (not Simpsons) soap-carvings.
Melts in a Furnace, Not in Your Hand
Most people are aware that toy robots have long been the marquee science fiction item for many toy collectors, with some vintage ones fetching tens of thousands of dollars.
For some reason, we are absolutely fascinated by these bits of metal and circuitry.
"[Toy robots] are part of our popular history because they captured the history and the intrigue of the space race,"Â said Robot Island owner Jay Brotter. "It was a time when fantasy was coming true, and [toy robots] were a part of it."Â
There is a certain magic to robots in that sense. Entering the atomic age, there was little that didn’t seem possible, and there to capture the possibilities of the future was the tin toy robot.
"Toy robots were originally friendly and helpful,Â" Brotter said. People thought that someday a robot would just be a helpful part of the household, like we saw in The Jetsons.Â
But the time period of these toys isn’t the only reason people find them so wonderful.
"[Toy robots] are so colorful and they all feature great play action,Â" said Rare Robots owner Mark Schenker. Toy robots also have a wonderful functionality that you don’t find in other toys.Â
So is there still interest in toy robots? Here’s the proof.
"[Companies] are still making new robots, and they are selling quite well,"Â Brotter said.
"It’s true that there are highs and lows in any hobbyâ€ Brotter likened it to the stock market, and with the pool of available vintage robots drying up, the demand is still there for classic designed robots. This has led to an influx of reproduction and new-style robots.
"Reproductions can initially have a bad effect on the market,"Â Brotter said, but for a collector who wants to hold that piece of history, even for something as subtle as the smell, there is no alternative to the vintage."Â
The future looks bright for robot toys. New designs which still encompass the style and feel of old robots are bringing new collectors and fans into the market. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that, as Brotter and Schenker both said, toy robots have a personality of their own.
Eric Krszjzaniek is the summer editorial intern forToy Shop. Eric still considers meeting Adam West at a car show when he was 6 the high-point of his life. In the fall, Eric will continue his attempt at being the first student granted tenure with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
For more information, please visit this articles web page.