In 1928, less than a decade after Karel Čapek’s science fiction play R.U.R. coined the term robot, the U.K. built its first humanoid robot. Eric debuted at the Society of Model Engineers’ exhibition, where he (or it, as some outlets prefer) wowed attendees with his movements and speech. The 6-foot-tall, 100-pound machine also understandably scared a few humans, thanks to the sparks that flew from his mouth (ON PURPOSE) when he spoke (generated by 35,000 volts of electricity). On an international press tour of sorts, Eric and his fellow robot George wowed Americans, who dubbed him “a nearly perfect man,” according to NPR.
But here’s where the story veers into why-hasn’t-this-been-made-into-an-Oscar-movie-already territory: George was destroyed by a bomb in World War II, and Eric disappeared. Now, the London Science Museum wants to rebuild him from scratch.
The museum has launched a Kickstarter to raise about $50,000 (£35,000) to rebuild Eric, as his whereabouts are unknown. (Again, if this were a movie, partway through the process the original Eric would reappear!) With only a few photographs and artistic renderings of Eric’s inner workings, the team has to bridge a lot of distance between a 1928 mechanical man and what robotics is capable of in 2016. Let Ben Russell, curator of the museum’s robots exhibition and leader of this project, explain more:
It’s one of our human instincts to anthropomorphise; we’ve built machines that look like us. And robots are almost like mirrors, they reflect back on ourselves, tell us who we are and how we are and what we think is important. When you take that long view you realise the places where you tend to find robots say a lot about the time and why they were important.
He also pointed out that Eric’s creation in the 1920s was likely due to questions about whether industrialization was turning people into machines. Today, with relatively simple bodyhacks that can make the average person technically a cyborg, it makes sense that we would want to rebuild a relic from the early robot days in a new context. The exhibition will open in February 2017, hopefully with Eric there to make an opening speech; possibly about killing all humans.