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Britain’s First Robot Lives Again

A recreation of the spark-spitting Eric the Robot is once again delighting audiences

Eric the robot stands tall once again (London Science Museum)
smithsonian.com

These days, robots help with everything from factories to surgeries, but back in the early 20th century they existed only in science fiction—except for a brief moment in the 1920s, when the British public was awed by presentations of a moving, talking mechanical man. The Robot, named “Eric," was the United Kingdom’s first robot and he quickly became a sensation among the public. Now, London’s Science Museum has resurrected Eric to wow robot-lovers once again.

Powered by a shocking 35,000 volts of electricity, the six-foot-tall, aluminum-coated robot could sit, stand and move his arms while shooting blue sparks from his mouth. His eyes were made of lightbulbs and as a nod to the origins of the modern robot in Karel Čapek’s play “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” Eric had the letters “RUR” emblazoned on his chest, Allison Meier reports for Hyperallergic.

By all accounts, Eric was an astonishing sight. But after going on a world tour sometime after his debut, Britain’s first robot vanished. Eric was likely dismantled and sold for parts, and while old newsreel footage and photographs showed off his fearsome-looking outsides, modern roboticists weren’t quite sure what made him tick, Tom Pritchard reports for Gizmodo UK.

“Recreating Eric has been a piece of detective-work,” Ben Russell, a curator at the Science Museum and the brains behind the project to rebuild Eric, writes in a blog post. “Using a handful of newspaper cuttings, a short film of Eric and the archive of Eric’s original creators we pieced together how he looked and moved to bring Eric back to life.”

Bringing Eric back to life wasn’t easy—or cheap. In addition to the archival research and custom design work needed to remake the famous robot, Russell and his colleagues had to raise quite a bit of money for the project. Turning to Kickstarter, they tried to raise nearly $43,000 to rebuild the robot and put it on display at the Science Museum. By the end, the crowdfunding campaign brought in more than $63,000.

Overall, rebuilding Eric took about five months. However, he has had a 21st-century upgrade: sculptor and robot-builder Giles Walker gave Eric 2.0 new joints that let him bend his elbows and move his head from side to side, as well as modern motors and electronics on his insides to power Eric’s movements. Eric’s eyes still glow a fearsome red, but luckily he no longer shoots sparks from his toothy mouth, Meier writes. Now, it just glows a gentle electric blue. On the outside, though, Eric looks just about the same as his predecessor, down to the letters “RUR” emblazoned on his chest.

Right now, Eric is on display at the London Science Museum through the end of November, with demonstrations of his 1920s-era movements (and a short speech by the metal man himself) taking place twice a week. However, starting in February 2017, Eric will return to the museum as part of the museum’s upcoming Robots exhibition before once again touring the world with his mechanical descendants. This time, though, he’ll come back in one piece.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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