The Robot Nelson Mandela
As a child I was blown away by the extended 1969 Monty Python’s Flying Circus Science Fiction sketch which had most of that week’s episode dedicated to it. It was an epic science fiction adventure, ahead of it’s time and no more truer than today, where a group of invading aliens, later revealed to be giant Blancmanges, were causing panic by turning the population of England into that they feared the most: Scotsmen! Yeah…
The plot unfolded to reveal that this dastardly plan was all about tennis, Wimbledon in particular, for as everyone knows Scotland is “well known as the worst tennis-playing nation on Earth”, allowing the Blancmanges to sweep through the opening rounds without any difficulty. However, as was pointed out by the commentator, this could have been their undoing as: “The rules of Wimbledon state quite clearly that there must be at least one human being concerned in the final.”
This led to the Scotsman Angus Podgorney taking them on to defend the human race and, after much trials, tribulations and the first Wimbledon finalist to be eaten on Centre Court since Spencer Gore in 1878, he went on to become the first (and only) Scotsman to win Wimbledon.
And the point I’m highlighting is the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s xenophobic race laws, which haven’t been repealed to this day, favouring human beings. Another popular organisation with similar prejudices is the Guinness Book of World Records which shamefully in the twenty-first century still insists that holders of records such as tallest man, longest beard, and largest collection of Charlie’s Angels memorabilia are all held by people!
So, to balance this out, I’ve decided to highlight the top five British robots. It took a long time to getting around to just saying that, but there we are. OK there aren’t actually five, some of them aren’t technically robots, and some aren’t really British, but what can you do?
The Most Fraudulent Robot
The most fraudulent robot, spoiler in the title, must go to the chess-playing Mechanical Turk which was an eighteenth century wind-up touring chess master who played and defeated many people including Napoleon.
The creator Wolfgang von Kempelen allowed controlled examination of the mechanism at demonstrations, like a skilled magician he shuffled through different cabinets one by one, which allowing the human operative to remain concealed inside. This hidden person then played chess by candlelight and operated the Turk mechanism to operate the game board.
An automaton, perhaps not. A fraud, possibly. But a creation of ingenuity and showmanship, definitely. It took over fifty years for the truth to come out.
The Most Litigious Robot
The Kandy Man from Doctor Who in the eighties… OK it’s technically not a real robot, but as a creature made up of constituent liquorice allsorts it does bare something of a similarity to… Err… No, no, I can’t see it.
Even though, on first appearance, a man made of liquorice allsorts amused as resembling a six foot tall walking talking Bertie Bassett but I’ve only just found out now that when it aired the chairman of Bassetts wrote to the BBC to complain that this was an infringement of their trademark. The BBC, apparently, said it wasn’t, but that they’d never use it again.
Still I’m sure that it was one of those morphic resonance things where two people come up with the same idea at the same time… seeing the Kandy Man appeared in November 1988, and Bertie Bassett was made public in January 1929… Err.
The Best Medical Robot
Robots seem to have invaded hospitals, replacing humans in doing menial tasks like carting about rubbish to spread disease amongst the wards, rummaging thought the pockets of the recently diseased to check for small change, and sweeping nurses off their feet.
As technology increases they seem to be getting smarter, getting more and more inventive with their disguises, and seemingly taking the faces of their victims to merge in and walk amongst us. That nurse hasn’t even noticed it’s made of cold metal. And, from what I imagine, that green thing probably passes for an everyday occurrence in Japan.
But the title of Best Medical Robot has to go to that thing at the end of Star Wars VI Revenge of the Sith as it delivered two babies with just those two shoe-horns for hands.
As a man I can’t even start to imagine, but I’m getting flashbacks to someone scooping out an avocado. I bet Natalie Portman couldn’t walk for a month.
The Most Cursed Robot
The most cursed robot has to be handed to the character Kamelion from Doctor Who who has the whole Tutankhamun vibe going on as everyone who associated with him has gained an untimely ending.
And this one actually is a robot, created for use in the TV series, and controlled by complex computer codes. But then in 1983, shortly after it was decided to use the robot as a major character, his software designer Mike Power was killed (boating accident) without leaving instructions on how to operate it.
The same fate befell both the scriptwriters who including the defunct mechanoid: Terence Dudley (cancer, 1988) and Peter Grimwade (leukaemia, 1990).
As did both the actors who portrayed the shape-shifting robot’s human alter-ego: Gerald Flood (heart attack, 1989) and Dallas Adams (aged 44, 1991).
In the reference book The Completely Useless Encyclopedia (Chris Howarth and Steve Lyons, 1996) it says that the writer Craig Hinton should “start worrying” after his novel The Crystal Bucephalus featured Kamelion prominently.
Hinton subsequently died (heart attack) in 2006 aged only 42.
The Biggest Robot Liar
C3P0 from Star Wars made the bold claim that he’s fluent in over 6 million languages yet all we hear him speak was English, doing a bit of Hutt translation, and all the time probably making up what R2D2 was saying from the voices in his head. So in modern day parlance he’s pretty much no better than an average student who’s done GCSE French and has a Collins dictionary hanging about the house. Plus, at today’s metal prices, think of the scrap value.
The Most Enduring Robot
Again another real robot made for the TV programme Doctor Who in 1977 and appeared up until 1981. Since then he’s made reappearances in 1983, 2006, and 2008; he was given a pilot for his own series K9 & Company in 1981; has done children’s TV presenting (1990); he’s appeared as a contestant on The Weakest Link (2007); he’s had a parody on South Park (apparently, 2006); he’s starred in the hit series The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007 – 2011); and he finally got his own spin off series in Australia in 2010.
The Greatest British Robot
A title you might imagine is pretty arbitrary, but the title of the Greatest British Robot must surely go to George. George the Robot. George the robot seen here doing the Reservoir Dogs walk with his creator Tony Sale.
George can walk, gesticulate, talk by remote control, and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that he can recognise human faces, but the amazing thing about him is that he was built by a boffin in 1949. Built by a military boffin in 1949 and forged from the metal of a crashed RAF Wellington bomber.
He wasn’t the first George that the boffin Tony Sale built, the first was when he was 12 in 1943, and previous versions were constructed in his garage out of cardboard and string. You know: The proper British way.
So actually George’s proper title is George IV, as denoting those that came before him, and with a title like that I’m not going to claim he’s the vessel for the living embodiment of the old king, a retainer for his earthly soul, here to reek bloody vengeance on all mankind… That’s for you to decide. But I think we can all see the resemblance and know which way the wind’s blowing on that one.
The sad story of robot George IV’s life is that after he was built in 1949, forged from sky-metal provided by Hitler, after many years service defending the British nation at RAF Debden, he was “retired” in 1965 and like a salmon returning to the place of its birth to spawn and die he was tricked into returning to Tony Sale’s garage where he was imprisoned for 45 years.
He was freed by Tony Sale in 2010 and after a battery change and some minor boffin tinkering he still worked perfectly. Tony Sale died shortly afterwards, aged 80, and donated George to the Bletchley Park museum where he should be proudly on display to the general public.
So as well being, undoubtedly, the Greatest British Robot after his 45 years of incarceration he’s surely also got the best claim to the robot most resembling the British Nelson Mandela too!
There, we got there, we made it to the justification of the blog post title so that it all makes some sort of sense. And incidentally, you may be interested to know, that in the Monty Python Science Fiction sketch the first victim of the alien Blancmanges was a man called Harry Potter… Oh JK Rowling, you little tinker!