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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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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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presidents
George Washington’s Incredible Hair Routine

America's Founding Fathers had some truly defining locks, but we tend to think of those well-coiffed white curls—with their black ribbon hair ties and perfectly-managed frizz—as being wigs. Not so in the case of the main man himself, George Washington.

As Robert Krulwich reported at National Geographic, a 2010 biography on our first president—Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow—reveals that the man “never wore a wig.” In fact, his signature style was simply the result of an elaborately constructed coiffure that far surpasses most morning hair routines, and even some “fancy” hair routines.

The style Washington was sporting was actually a tough look for his day. In the late 18th century, such a hairdo would have been worn by military men.

While the hair itself was all real, the color was not. Washington’s true hue was a reddish brown color, which he powdered in a fashion that’s truly delightful to imagine. George would (likely) don a powdering robe, dip a puff made of silk strips into his powder of choice (there are a few options for what he might have used), bend his head over, and shake the puff out over his scalp in a big cloud.

To achieve the actual ‘do, Washington kept his hair long and would then pull it back into a tight braid or simply tie it at the back. This helped to showcase the forehead, which was very in vogue at the time. On occasion, he—or an attendant—would bunch the slack into a black silk bag at the nape of the neck, perhaps to help protect his clothing from the powder. Then he would fluff the hair on each side of his head to make “wings” and secure the look with pomade or good old natural oils.

To get a better sense of the play-by-play, check out the awesome illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton that accompany Krulwich’s post.

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