Illustration that appeared in the June 1924 issue of Practical Electrics magazine

If you go to department stores in Japan you’ll sometimes be greeted by a friendly robot. Maybe one that looks like this:

Toshiba’s Aiko Chihira robot greets customers and gives directions at the Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo (Associated Press)

But for decades people have been imagining that businesses would stock their stores with humanoid robots. In fact, this particular vision of the future is nearly a century old. The June 1924 issue of Practical Electrics magazine included an article that predicted the rise of robots in public settings like stores, train stations, and office buildings.

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Can you spot the robot in this illustration?

How about now?

That’s right, it’s the mechanical man sitting in the chair holding the newspaper. It’s just a dummy with a microphone and a speaker inside, controlled by a man on the floor above.

The robot itself wasn’t particularly complex, but what’s striking is that the illustration makes clear that people would want to see and interact something that looked identical to a human.

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From the June 1924 issue of Practical Electrics:

In former times in this vicinity cigar stores were indicated by a “Wooden Indian” standing at their entrance. It was quite characteristic of old New York, but they have disappeared so completely, that efforts are actually being made by some museums to get a sample for exhibition and preservation as a relic.

We show here a modern version of the wooden Indian; this time it is a Caucasian seated comfortably in a chair and prepared to answer questions, to tell inquiring visitors in a department store where they can get special articles, on what floor they will find neckties, where they can purchase shoestrings, and if the resources of the store permit, which is not always the case, where they can procure needles.

The figure which we illustrate is in itself quite a find and is jocusely termed “Sunny Jim” by its owners, who are using it to demonstrate a super-sensitive microphone and loud speaker.

You can ask it any question in a colloquial voice, standing off at a distance. The voice is transmitted to a telephone receiver in a more or less distant part where an operator is established. He receives the message and telephones back his answer. This is received by a loud speaker inside the figure and the information required is enunciated with great distinctness and in a clear conversational voice.

We still seem quite a long way from autonomous robots that can answer all our questions at Target. But when that day finally comes, we can say that it was a century in the making.