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The Play That Gave Us the Word Robot

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Humans have long been obsessed with the idea of man-like machines they could dominate—or be dominated by. But the word robot is just 90 years old, and the blockbuster play that introduced the word has long since been forgotten. It’s a story of subservient Slavs and evil androids—a runaway international stage hit that explored fears of technology that still pervade media to this day.

Don’t look to the future for the origins of robot; look to the past. In what is now the Czech Republic, serfdom—the practice of forcing peasants to work the land of the aristocracy in return for their protection—wasn’t fully abolished until the 1840s, when the revolutions that were sweeping Europe convinced the aristocracy to fully emancipate the peasants. That legacy of forced labor left behind a word in Czech, robota, which refers to the type of work performed by serfs and is related to a word meaning “slave” that is still in use in Russian.

That word was on the top of the mind for writer Karel Čapek in 1917. Čapek was a forward-thinking satirist who was obsessed with ethical questions about industry, national identity, and human beings throughout his short life. Along with his brother, Josef, he questioned everything about modernism, from consumerism to politics to the changing nature of artistic expression itself.

It’s no surprise, then, that the work that made Čapek’s name as a playwright and writer was about the idea of machines destroying human civilization. After his brother coined the term “robot” from robota, he wrote a play called R.U.R, or “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” Its plot is both hilarious and chilling, following a robot rebellion from its roots at an industrial factory to its decimation of all human beings on Earth except one.

R.U.R. reads like a sci-fi work well ahead of its time. It’s packed with lines like “the best sort of worker is the cheapest worker. The one who has the least needs.” and “Robots don’t love anything, not even themselves.” Čapek’s robots weren’t the machines we associate with the term today; rather, they were cyborg-like creatures completely indistinguishable from humans except for their complete lack of morality. The robots eventually turn the tables on their human masters, telling them, “You will work. You will build. Robots will need many buildings. Robots will need many houses for new robots.” Eventually, the robots realized they screwed up by killing their human masters and decide to repopulate the Earth.

Humankind doesn’t have a happy ending in R.U.R., but the play itself did. It was produced for the first time in Prague in 1921, and became so popular that it was translated into English and given runs in England and the United States. Its U.S. run had 184 performances.

Though it was panned in The New York Times, none other than Carl Sandburg wrote to defend R.U.R. “In its various windings,” he wrote in a letter to the editor, “R.U.R. is significant, important, teasing, quizzical, funny, terrible, paradoxical.” Sandburg found parallels in the play with politics, human docility, and the danger of things like cars and efficient machines.

Karel Čapek’s legacy didn’t have the same staying power as his play, which is still occasionally revived. He was nominated for a Nobel Prize, but his anti-fascist writings and close ties with Czech democratic leaders made giving him the prize too risky. Over the years, he became more and more isolated from the international writing community due to his outspoken opposition to the political tide that was sweeping through Europe.

He was on Hitler’s list of people to deport when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, but when the authorities showed up at his house to arrest him, they learned from his widow that he had died. Josef Čapek came to an early end too, dying in the Terezin concentration camp. R.U.R. may have been a work of satirical sci-fi, but phrases like “The world belongs to the strongest. Who wishes to live must dominate. We are masters of the world!” take on a chilly double meaning in light of the Čapeks’ tragic story.

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Museum of the City of New York
New York City Exhibition Celebrates the Rebellious Victorian-Era Women Who Made History
Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

At a time when women wore corsets and hooped skirts, the American Jewish actress Adah Isaacs Menken caused quite a stir when she appeared onstage in men’s clothing. It was the early 1860s, and her portrayal of a man in the play Mazeppa saw her ride into the theater on a horse while wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. Critics were shocked, but Menken paid no mind. Both on stage and in her daily life, she continued to disregard the norms of that era by cutting her hair short and smoking cigarettes in public.

Menken is just one of the daring women featured in a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. Rebel Women: Defying Victorianism celebrates the New York women who challenged the rigid expectations of the Victorian era, and includes a collection of photographs, clothes, and prints from the period.

A caricatures of the "Grecian bend"
Museum of the City of New York

The 19th century was a period of constraints for women. "During this era, a woman could be considered a rebel simply by speaking in public, working outside the home, or disregarding middle‐class morality or decorum," according to a museum statement. “Yet 19th‐century New York City was full of women who defied those expectations in both overt and subtle ways.”

The exhibit highlights the accomplishments of historic figures who contributed to the advancement of women’s rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but it also casts a light on lesser-known figures—many of whom history was unkind to.

A photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Museum of the City of New York

An illustration of women voting
Museum of the City of New York

There’s Ann Trow Lohman, also known as “Madame Restell,” who was dubbed “The Wickedest Woman in New York” for providing birth control to women. Similarly, Hetty Green earned the moniker “The Witch of Wall Street” for her successful career as a stock broker.

Visitors will also learn about a predecessor to Rosa Parks: Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black New Yorker who refused to get off of a segregated street car in 1854.

Not all of the women had such noble goals, though, and the exhibition shows that men didn’t have a monopoly on crime. Notorious pickpocket and con-woman Sophie Lyons used her smarts and beauty to steal from wealthy men and earned a reputation as "the most notorious confidence woman America has ever produced."

The exhibition will be on view until January 6, 2019, and tickets can be purchased online.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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