During the autumn of 1932 a group of curious onlookers assembled in Brighton, England to see inventor Harry May's latest invention, Alpha the robot. The mechanical man was controlled by verbal commands and sat in a chair silently while May carefully placed a gun in Alpha's hand. May then walked across the room to set up a target for the robot to shoot.
Seemingly more man than machine, and without a word from its inventor, the robot rose to its feet. May commanded the two-ton robot to sit, but instead it took a step forward. As the machine slowly raised the pistol, women in the audience screamed and men shouted warnings to the inventor. May commanded the robot to stop. "Drop that gun and sit down!" he screamed to no effect. Naturally, the inventor rose his hand to defend himself. Alpha the robot squeezed the trigger and in one quick, violent moment the discharged bullet pierced flesh and shattered the bones in May's hand.
The robot stood motionless, its arm outstretched with the smoking gun. May's voice could be heard, again desperately attempting to command the robot, "Back to your chair, Alpha! And drop that gun!"
This time, to everyone's amazement, the robot obeyed its master's command. The gun fell to the floor and the robot returned to its chair.
As a doctor tended to May, the inventor calmly explained, "I always had a feeling that Alpha would turn on me some day, but this is the first time he ever disobeyed my commands. I can't understand why he fired before I gave the proper signal."
Newspapers across the United States took this story and ran with it. An editorial from a Louisiana newspaper even proclaimed that the era of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was upon us. The bold new world of automation was to be feared. Mechanical men of our own creation were sure to destroy us all.
With the benefit of hindsight we can say that this series of events never happened, or were at the very least, wildly exaggerated. A much tamer version of the story was reported in far fewer newspapers, (just one by my count), but still contained the sensationalistic headline, "Maker Is Shot by Robot He Invented." In this version of the story May was inserting a cartridge into the gun, which was attached to the robot, and an accidental, premature discharge simply burned the inventor's hand.
Such fantastic feats ascribed to robots are so obviously absurd to today's skeptical minds. Robotic machines are just now beginning to complete the most basic tasks of walking up stairs, slowly running, and "recognizing" faces. Such autonomous movement, as described in the story of Alpha turning on its inventor, is only recently beginning to be seen in robots being developed by Honda, Toyota and in elite universities around the world.
But why did these articles run in so many newspapers across the country? Why were people apt to believe that a "robot," or "mechanical man" would develop a mind of its own and turn on its inventor?
The 1930s was an era of dread. The Great Depression had ravaged the nation economically, physically and emotionally. The fear of automation manifested itself in sensational pieces throughout various popular media about the invasion of the machine. Comic books, radio dramas and newspaper articles fueled the fire, and allowed the nation to point to something, anything. Robots, technology, automation, they were the cause of our distress.
Technology was something to fear because it would (or had) put you out of a job. Automation meant efficiency. Automation meant fewer jobs for men who worked in factories. Automation meant that we would never see an end to the despair. Sound familiar?