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.