The army of robots

In 1984, a historical review of robots, cyborgs, automatons and androids invaded New York's American Craft Museum, exploring an ancient myth deeply rooted in our imagination.

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This article was originally published in Domus 651 / June 1984

A renewed technological myth: robot history, fantasy and reality in an exhibition at the American Craft Museum of New York
The robots have just been born, and now — after their emergence from a period of adolescence in fat-research laboratories — they have made their triumphal entry into our daily lives.

And yet, at the technological apex of the new industrial revolution, these automaton have already become museum pieces, archaeological remains of a future that seems already past. This, at least, is the impression of the visitor to "The Robot Exhibit" at the American Craft Museum, New York, from January to May of this year: a historical review of robots, cyborgs, automatons and androids.

It may seem strange that a technology of such recent date and one which, in the opinion of all, has such a great and wonderful future ahead of it should be celebrated in museums, of all places, as though it were an aspect of mature culture. In reality, however, the robot myth is extremely ancient and deeply rooted in our imaginations.
Top: <em>Sigma</em>, assembly line robot at the Olivetti C. N. factory, Marcianise, Caserta 1983. Above: Left, <em>Robot with alligator</em>, sculpture by Tony Buonaugurio (1982) (Courtesy of Gallery Ives Arman NY). Right, <em>Robert Robot</em>, USA 1961, mechanical toy (Courtesy of Robotorium New York). From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984
Top: Sigma , assembly line robot at the Olivetti C. N. factory, Marcianise, Caserta 1983. Above: Left, Robot with alligator , sculpture by Tony Buonaugurio (1982) (Courtesy of Gallery Ives Arman NY). Right, Robert Robot , USA 1961, mechanical toy (Courtesy of Robotorium New York). From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984
It is a myth that has always drawn sustenance from terror and fascination, on irresistible attraction and fear (Frankenstein and Golem being the two classic examples of this). Clearly we are dealing here with feeling that originated long before microelectronics allowed robots to actually step out of science fiction to become part of ordinary life as produced machines.

The New York exhibition uses 160 objects to tell the story of this long conflict of feelings. Here we find toys, sculptures, useless mechanisms, works of art, industrial robots, cinema robots, robots for assembling motor cars. The starting point of the exhibition is a little wooden dog, the work of some unknown craftsman in the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and the last exhibit is the latest "intelligent" created by Unimation for industry.
<em>Godsigma</eM>, robot toy (Courtesy of Godaikin), Japan 1983. From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984
Godsigma , robot toy (Courtesy of Godaikin), Japan 1983. From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984
A comparison between robots of the past and the mecatronics workers of the present shows the great difference between them, despite their common origin in the same myth. The forms of all the fantasy-based useless robots right up to the recent past reveal all the tensions involved in theilbot creators' attempts to overcome insufficient technology. In contrast, the most sophisticated modern robots, though capable of the most amazing performance (e.g. the manipulation of artificial satellites in orbit), look to us like banal mechanisms, with little of the sensationa! about them at all.
Their forms and designs don't mean much to us: everything is "flattened" by the need of the productive functionality for which they were created
Left, <em>RB5X. The intelligent Robot</eM>, USA 1982. Mobile personal robot for the office, programmable in LOGO (the simplest programming language). Follows voice commands, reproduces sounds, can find its way, able to find and put out small fires. Right, robot toy, USA 1960. From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984
Left, RB5X. The intelligent Robot , USA 1982. Mobile personal robot for the office, programmable in LOGO (the simplest programming language). Follows voice commands, reproduces sounds, can find its way, able to find and put out small fires. Right, robot toy, USA 1960. From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984
Their forms and designs don't mean much to us: everything is "flattened" by the need of the productive functionality for which they were created. Faithful servants, unable to rebel or to surprise, totally without fascination. It's a strange exhibition at the Craft Museum. To some extent it celebrates an updated technological myth; for the rest, it show us the physical evidence of a utopian mentality that is age-old. Carlo Arcari
Left, <em>DC-Prober</em> by Robert Profeta, 1979. Programmable personal robot. Walks, moves arms and head, can pick up and manipulate objects, can function as a guardian, signaling noises, lights and heat. Right, robot sculpture by Fabio Tita, Milan 1981. From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984
Left, DC-Prober by Robert Profeta, 1979. Programmable personal robot. Walks, moves arms and head, can pick up and manipulate objects, can function as a guardian, signaling noises, lights and heat. Right, robot sculpture by Fabio Tita, Milan 1981. From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984
Left, some industrial robots, produced in Italy, in use in large factories. Right, <em>Camel Robot</em>, Milan 1984. Manipulating robot, specialised in thermic procedures, pictured here with its designer Alessandro Ferloni. From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984
Left, some industrial robots, produced in Italy, in use in large factories. Right, Camel Robot , Milan 1984. Manipulating robot, specialised in thermic procedures, pictured here with its designer Alessandro Ferloni. From the pages of Domus 651 / June 1984

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