Where the Robots Came From

Exploring the sci-fi (and simply sci) roots of the word.

Robots are in the air, and I don’t just mean flying robots like the self-assembling, Borg-like Distributed Flight Array: The wonderful sci-fi cartoon Futurama, featuring the world’s foremost alcoholic robot, Bender, just returned from cancellation; the recent quarterly update to the Oxford English Dictionary offered a huge update of “robot” and robo-related words; and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my visits to Robot City Workshop, a nothing-but-robots store in my north Chicago neighborhood.

With real robots doing everything from surgery to roller skating, I know that affordable robot butlers are just around the corner—making it a great time for an extended look at "robot,” a word that already performs so many jobs for us in sci-fi and science.

“Robot” has a refreshingly clear-cut origin. As Oxford English Dictionary Chief Editor John Simpson writes, “In 1920 the Czech writer Karel ?apek published his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots)—in Czech, but with a strange new word (in English) in the title. ?apek said that the word was suggested to him by his brother Josef (from Czech robota ‘forced labour, drudgery’).” ?apek’s play featured artificial creatures that were biological rather than mechanical, created to do crappy jobs. That play made its way to New York in 1922, and the robot invasion of English was underway.

The 1920s saw the word breed like bunny-bots. As early as 1923, it was being used for cold, emotionless people, a sense Tim Siedell revisited recently: “A remote sub made the Gulf leak worse. Stories appear about Al Gore's sex life. All in all, a pretty bad week for robots.” The 1920s also saw the first uses of “robot clerk,” “robot plane,” “robot station,” “robot army,” “robotesque,” and “robotian,” and by the end of the decade, automatic street lights were also called "robots."

One of the more violent meanings didn’t emerge till World War II: the “robot bomb” of the Germans, which was self-propelled and also called a “doodle bug,” “robot airplane,” and “robomb.” In the mid-1980s, software robots popped up, showing the tendency of “robot” to be used much like “smart” for any program or device that has some autonomy.

Though science fiction (especially in the movies) has dominated our collective sense of robot-itude, robots are far from a fantasy these days. You don’t have to peruse magazines like New Scientist or Robot for long to see examples of real robots that can fly, cook, bow, dance, shake hands, climb rocks, work as a team, and assist geriatric patients. The prolific science of robotics is intriguing for another reason. As Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction Editor Jeff Prucher notes, robotics is “one of the only actual sciences to have been first named in a science fiction story”—specifically Isaac Asimov’s 1941 story “Liar.” The OED’s first non-sci-fi use isn’t till 1968: “Significant technological advances in the field of ‘robotics’—the use of robots in the field of industrial automation—were announced today.” Asimov’s short stories also feature the first uses of “robotic,” “robotical,” “roboticist,” and “robotics,” plus the invention of “The Three Laws of Robotics,” which appeared as “the three fundamental rules of Robotics” back in 1942.

Both halves of “robot” have been prolific word-generators. Robo-words tend to designate actual robots or robot-like non-bots, as in a Matt Taibbi reference to Mitt Romney as a “Mormon glambot.” Political observers and annoyed phone answerers know the “robocall”—those obnoxious, automated messages. Then there’s Robocop, a 1987 movie, but a word 30 years older and used by Harlan Ellison: “Bergman stopped at the door, as the robocop rolled up, and its tentacles slammed out at him.”

Meanwhile, “bot" has been shorthand for “robot” since at least 1969. From the OED: “When they got my ship the only part of me that the 'bots were able to get into cold-sleep was my head, shoulders and a part of my spine.” The sense of “bot” as a computer program that searches for info is much newer, first appearing in a 1990 usenet post titled “Bot-haters Unite!” “Bot” is also a prolific suffix: the OED has examples of Santa-bot, snakebot, and J.Lo-bot, plus a full entry on “fembot,” probably the most successful word of this type, no doubt because of the fearsome female robots that have filled Battlestar Galactica, Austin Powers, and male fantasies.

Whether in the real world, the bizarre worlds of sci-fi, or the English language, you just can’t stop robots. Even the universal desire for a robot butler may soon be sated: meet Baxter the Butler Bot and his faithful sidekick, RoboFridge.

Illustration by Will Etling.


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