Assembling Eric: Bringing back the UK's first robot

image copyrightPopular Science
image captionEric's eyes were two lightbulbs - and so delicate they were oiled with a syringe

London's Science Museum has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the rebuilding of one of the first robots.

Eric, as it was called, was originally built in 1928, and was the UK's first humanoid robot, impressing audiences with his movement and speech.

He travelled the globe as a showcase for futuristic technology - but disappeared in the 1930s.

Now, the museum is trying to raise £35,000 to rebuild him and has received more than £6,000 in four days.

Eric was created by British duo Captain William H Richards and Alan Reffell. Made mostly from aluminium and weighing 45kg, he could stand, move his limbs and rotate his head.

image copyrightPopular Science
image caption"Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking..." Eric said, opening the 1928 Engineering Exhibition in London.

Perhaps most impressive for the time, Eric could apparently respond to voice commands and "speak" - but only in carefully stage-managed appearances.

Assembling Eric

"Eric holds a unique place in our history. He was everything we now imagine a robot to be - a talking, moving mechanical person," Museum curator Ben Russell said.

image copyrightScience Museum
image captionThe team have collected as many early references as possible

The team behind the project tracked down relatives of Eric's inventor to collect as many documents as possible, including photographs, drawings and technical diagrams.

Working with robotics artist Giles Walker, the plan is to reconstruct Eric as faithfully as possible using modern components.

"It's one of our human instincts to anthropomorphise; we've built machines that look like us," Russell said in an interview with Wired Magazine.

"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."

Symbol of Fate

Eric was first built at short notice for the London Engineering Exhibition of 1928, when the keynote speaker dropped out of his opening address. Instead, the robot was scheduled to make the opening speech.

Writing about the unveiling at the time, Popular Science Monthly said: "The Thing's enormous size and the stark immobility of his face gave him a really terrifying quality... [the crowd] returned his lifeless gaze.

image copyrightPopular Science
image captionEric was built in a time when robots were only emerging as a possible future technology.

"They felt subconsciously that here was some strange symbol of relentless Fate itself."

Eric stood up and began his speech as any human might: "Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, it gives me great pleasure..."

Robots, at the time, were a relatively new concept. Mechanical automatons had existed for many years, but the term "robot" was coined in a 1920 play "RUR" by Czech writer Karel Capek. Those letters - for Rossum's Universal Robots - appeared on Eric's chestplate.

The mechanical man proved a hit with audiences and Eric went on tour to technology exhibitions across the world, from Germany to New York.

Some time in the 1930s, however, he disappeared without explanation: lost, dumped, or possibly recycled.

If the museum's project is completed, Eric will form the centrepiece of a new robotic exhibition, which is due to run from February to September 2017.

The exhibition will showcase the evolution of modern robotics from a 1582 iron manikin to the toy robots of the 1950s.

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