Readers of the Fresno Bee may have choked on their ham and eggs when they opened the paper on a Thursday morning in 1934.
Under the headline, “Gigantic robots, controlled by wireless, to fight our battles”, the Californian paper ran a sensational – and terrifying - story about the impending future of warfare. The article detailed a talk in Paris by French scientist and military engineer Professor [Felix Gaston] Gauthier in which he disclosed that “two pacifistic-minded nations” were “secretly (and supposedly unknown to each other) planning to construct gigantic fighting robots.”
"These mechanical soldiers," declared Professor Gauthier, "will be of unexampled proportions. My informants, whose authentic statements I have never had reason to question before, have conveyed to me the startling news that each of these nations hopes someday to build robots 1,000 feet high!"
The piece went on to describe how these machines “could crush the largest and most powerful war tank ever built by merely stamping on it”. And, in case readers were stills struggling to imagine the size and power of these mechanical beasts, the newspaper ran a clarifying picture of two of them fighting – one raising a mace over its head ready to deliver a final blow to another automaton, which is lying on the ground amidst the wreck of buildings and tanks. The caption reads: “In the event that the two 1,000-foot-tall enemy robots ever come face-to-face they will pound each other with their might, square iron fists, kick with their great steel legs and struggle to destroy each other while skyscrapers all around them fall to the ground”. Quite how these machines were to be built with the technology of the day was a minor detail.
But, whilst it is easy to look back and smirk at articles like this, it should be seen in the context of the day. World War I – and the destruction it wrought - was still fresh in the minds of the “Lost Generation”. More than 9 million soldiers were killed, largely because technological advances such as machine guns, tanks and mustard gas. At the same time, the clouds of war were once again building over Europe. People were clinging on to any hope that the “madness of 1914” could be averted or – if another war was likely – that it could be fought without another terrible loss of life.
The answer, at least to some people’s minds, was the robot. These word “robot” was only invented in 1920 but the concept had started to gather steam in the preceding war years.
Take an October, 1918 issue of Electrical Experimenter - published just a month before the end of WWI. The magazine was the brainchild of It showcased one of Hugo Gernsback, the “father of science fiction”, and it featured one of his most radical and yet most prescient ideas for the future of war: the “Automatic Soldier.”
“As science advances, and as all sorts of infernal machines are thrown into a modern war, the men in the front line trenches become less and less anxious to bear the full brunt of high explosive shells, gas attacks, liquid fire and what not,” the article reads. “No matter how courageous a body of soldiers, their morale is bound to deteriorate considerably under a murderous mustard gas attack, or under a modern barrage.”
Gernsback’s design was inspired by a Danish engineer who had obtained patents on such an invention. Pictures show a fleet of these red droids proceeding along the trenches laying waste to a fragile – and obviously German – enemy.