Plans to bring Eric, the UK's first walking, talking robot, back to life

4 pictures

The London's Science Museum is rebuilding a much-loved robot that traveled the world back in 1928, for inclusion in their new Robots exhibition

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Back in 1928, a robot that could speak and move around was pretty impressive, so it's no surprise that Eric the aluminum-clad automaton was a sensation when he did just that in front of crowds across Europe and the United States. However, just as suddenly as Eric the robot shuffled onto the world stage, he disappeared. Now the British Science Museum is looking to rebuild Eric for new generations to enjoy, using information contained in original photographs and drawings.

The early part of the 20th Century was a particularly industrious time. World War One had seen a huge increase in mechanization across the world as factories churned out the military equipment for battle and a great many improvements in manufacturing vastly increased the speed and efficiency at which items were produced. After the conflict was over, this improved industrialization turned to consumer goods to feed the growing prosperity and economic confidence that followed. This increased mechanization also spurred a new fascination with all things mechanical, and the public became enamored with everything from science fiction to aircraft – and robots.

So much so that, when the Duke of York declined an invitation to open the British Society of Model Engineers' annual exhibition of September 1928, several members of that society decided to create their own mechanical man to take his place. The result was Eric, a 45 kg (99 lb), 150 cm (5 ft) tall, aluminum-clad automaton that could not only sit, stand, and wave his arms, but also had the power of speech, which was enhanced by some 35,000 volts of electricity that made sparks spit out of his mouth as he spoke.

In line with popular culture at the time, Eric had the letters "R.U.R" emblazoned across his chest as reference to a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek entitled "Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti" (Rossum's Universal Robots), that first introduced the word robot into the English language.

Originally created by Captain W. H. Richards & A.H. Reffell, Eric was very much a British robot, with erudite speech and impeccable manners. So much so that the New York press reporting on his visit called him "quintessentially British." However, after having traveled the world with his creators, and drawn huge crowds wherever he was exhibited, Eric suddenly disappeared, never to be seen again. As to whether he was lost, stolen, destroyed or scrapped, remains a mystery.

Happening on Eric's stories in their archives while researching London's Science Museum's Robots exhibition, staff managed to contact the relatives of the men who designed and built Eric. As a result, they have brought together enough original plans, photographs, and other documents to allow them to rebuild Eric.

To do this, the Museum has commissioned an artist-roboticist, Giles Walker, for the task. Walker has been recycling industrial scrap into functional robots for over 20 years, has created automota for music festivals and – most importantly – has resurrected old robots before. So far, Walker has begun making working drawings of Eric based on the archive of materials collected by the museum, as well as from discussions with staff at the Museum. Once all of these plans are in place, Walker believes it should probably take him about three months to rebuild the robot.

To provide the funds to fully rebuild Eric, the Museum has launched a crowdfunding campaign, which they hope will see Eric put on display at the Museum from October 2016. Along with a a raft of other robots, Eric would appear in the Museum's Robots exhibition in 2017, before he potentially sets off on a world tour just as the original Eric did all those decades ago, before becoming a part of the Science Museum's permanent collection.

Various pledges can be made to rebuild Eric, from £5 (US$7.20) for a digital photograph of the robot on the day he is completed, through to £20 (US$29) for an Eric tote bag, on up to £50 (US$72) and more for a laser-cut mini replica of Eric.

The Science Museum's Robots exhibition will run from February to September 2017, and if everything goes to plan with the crowdfunding campaign, Eric will be in attendance.

The video below shows some of the work behind the scenes of the project.

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