Robot Washing Car

Retro Robots

Skip the uncanny valley and delight in these scrappy hunks of metal.

While the idea of a mechanical minion designed solely to do one's bidding may seem new-fangled, man has long dreamed of automating the mundanities of life. Greek history is lousy with inventors who imagined steam- and water-powered devices. In the late 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci drew plans for a humanoid robot in his journal. And in 1738, French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson exhibited several life-sized automatons (including a duck!). In short, we've been living in Westworld for centuries now.


And while AI has gotten increasingly lifelike over the years, there's a certain charm to the clumsy tin men of yore (even if they couldn't give directions or do homework). Just take a look:

THE INNER WORKINGS ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild via Getty Images THE INNER WORKINGS An automaton, designed by French watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his son Henri-Louis, dates back to the 1700s. The duo's creations are often considered the earliest examples of computing. BEHIND THE SCENES Harlingue/Roger Viollet/Getty Images BEHIND THE SCENES An automaton in progress, circa 1910. ERIC THE ROBOT Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images ERIC THE ROBOT Considered Britain's first robot, Eric was built in 1928 by WWI veteran Captain William Richards and aircraft engineer Alan Reffell as a replacement for the Duke of York at the opening of the Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers in London. After bowing and turning his head from side to side, Eric delivered a four-minute address to the audience at the Royal Horticultural Hall. He later went on a world tour before vanishing. GEORGE THE ROBOT ullstein bild Dtl./ullstein bild via Getty Images GEORGE THE ROBOT Eric's younger, more sophisticated brother (he could reportedly speak in French, German, Hindustani, Chinese, and Danish) is pictured here "having coffee" with Richards in Berlin. ELEKTRO THE ROBOT Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images ELEKTRO THE ROBOT Built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Elektro could walk by voice command, speak about 700 words, and smoke cigarettes. He's pictured here at the 1939 New York World's Fair and later appeared in the movie "Sex Kittens Go to College" in the role of "Thinko." So Hollywood! ALPHA THE ROBOT Evening Standard/Getty Images ALPHA THE ROBOT After 14 years of work, English scientist Harry May saw his efforts come to life in the form of Alpha, who could talk, sing, whistle, laugh, tell time, read the small print of a newspaper, and, perhaps most troubling, fire a revolver. At one point, rumors circulated that Alpha had shot his creator, and while the particulars of the story were often exaggerated, the bot did fire once without warning, tearing flesh from May's arm. MAC THE MECHANICAL MAN Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images MAC THE MECHANICAL MAN Invented by Leighton Hilbert, Mac stood seven-and-a-half feet tall and weighed in at 250 lbs. Talk about a beach bot. ROBOT BARBER Bettmann/Bettmann Archive ROBOT BARBER No sudden moves! GARCO THE ROBOT Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images GARCO THE ROBOT This humanoid was built by engineer Harvey Chapman from discarded aircraft parts and was operated by remote control. ONE MORE ROBOT Bettmann/Bettmann Archive ONE MORE ROBOT This droid, built by Swiss engineer Paul Waltensperger, was touted as able to do "everything except make love."