It doesn’t take much to get us heading cross to the Science Museum in South Kensington, and it takes even less to point me in the direction of a vintage robot, so an exhibition dedicated to the history of robots over the past 500 years took very little contemplation before we put it high on our ‘to do’ list. 500 years is a broad canvas to cover, even in so extensive a museum, so the exhibition sensibly carves the subject into five epochs: 1570-1800, entitled ‘Marvel’; 1800-1920, ‘Obey’; 1920-2009, ‘Dream’; 1940-today, ‘Build’; and 2000 onwards, ‘Imagine’. Of course, those themes overlap a fair bit, but it allows the exhibition to tell the story of robots dating back to the linking of the human body to machines, including some wonderful automata, which led neatly into the concept of the machine as a substitute human, and the impact of automation on industry in the 19th Century.

Running throughout is the story of how the machines were built, and the innovations from the 20th Century onwards illustrated just how Heath Robinson much robotic development necessarily is, especially as designers strive constantly to replicate the movement that we humans take daily for granted – the kind of thing that allows me to type this with all ten fingers moving independently and simultaneously, each hitting the key with just the right force to produce the desired letter, and keep doing it with infinite variation of the order of letters. There were some great volunteer assistants around (real ones), to demonstrate various bits of robotry; needless to say, however, they became redundant as we moved into the later parts of the exhibition, when the robots themselves came into their own to demonstrate their own capabilities. Manufacturing, trumpet-playing, child-minding, and even acting (‘luvvie-bot’ was the titled we preferred for him), were all on show. The progressive attempts to emulate human expression were the most unnerving bit – a robot’s fine when it look and acts like a robot, but anything pretending to be human is just a bit weird (or is that too many episodes of The Twilight Zone?).

But of course it was the 1950s bit we really went to see (well, me anyway), and I wasn’t disappointed. A row of cabinets around the outside of the room were full of 50s robot graphics and tinplate models, reflecting the whole Forbidden Planet/Lost in Space genre of metal machines, whilst in the middle was a wonderful collection of original and replica full size versions, running from the deco beauty from Metropolis, through a collection of truly experimental post-War European robots. I wonder why it was that the Italian version relished in the evocative title of ‘Cygan’ (even if he did end up rusting after his dance school business ran dry), whilst the British equivalents were prosaically dubbed Eric and George? I loved the little attempts at ‘humanising’ them, including the metal noses and tinplate ears. I learned afterwards that some of them had been activated for special events connected with the exhibition; sadly, they’re static for everyday display, or I’d have had to be dragged away.

The exhibition shop is excellent, with an emphasis on the vintage element and some lovely specially-commissioned items sporting some little known 50s graphics. I could easily have bought an entire wall of framed prints – if only I had a spare wall to put them on. Having just splurged on some replica tinplate robot characters, I managed to restrain myself to just a few little items, but it was hard work.


As ever, there’s much more to see at the Museum. We can never visit there without dipping into the permanent space gallery, and we were distracted for some time by a moving and thought-provoking free exhibition charting the progress made in battlefield medicine and restorative surgery during the First World War. I’m just about old enough to remember WW1 veterans being common amongst my grandparents’ generation (my paternal grandfather being one of them), and the scars that they and their WW2 equivalents bore into old age. It’s sobering to be reminded that each technological advance in warfare demands its medical counterpoint, and the exhibition pulls no punches in bringing that story up to date.

The Robots exhibition runs until 3 September, and the details are on the Museum’s website…  One can never leave the Science Museum without being made to think, but it’s always entertaining, too. And 50s robots are just brilliant – and deserve a little collection of random photos…