Boomers have had a special relationship with robots that dates back to our youth in the form of movies and toys. Basically, our robots were a link to the future in our play and imagination. There were two types of robots: those that helped us vanquish our enemies (or the task at hand) and those that would vanquish us.
There is evidence that humans have been envisioning robots as far back as the 4th century B.C. Several hundred years later, Leonardo DaVinci sketched a humanoid robot in 1495. However, use of the word “robot” is attributed to a Czech writer in 1920. The word referred to a worker or laborer, or one held in servitude for a contracted period of time.
For boomers, robots meant fun play in the 1950s and 60s. Remember the kid-friendly noise and squawk of Ideal Toy’s Mr. Machine from the unforgettable TV commercial from 1960? Wind the toy up and it swung its arms as it walked, opened its mouth as it squawked. The entire robot, made of plastic and metal, could be disassembled and put back together. It had a switch that would make the toy walk forward or in a circle.
Ideal followed up with another robot toy that let kids “control” the robot. In this case, it fired missiles at your enemy at your command. The toy industry wouldn’t dare let a toy like this one hit the shelves any more, with its numerous choking hazards and eye-poking possibilities.
Mister Boomer didn’t have robot toys, but he loved the robots in the classic 1950s sci-fi movies. Two of his favorites were Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (the original from 1951 with Michael Renni, not the Keanu Reeves remake).
The plot of Forbidden Planet was inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but to a young boomer, the real star of the film was Robby the Robot. He was there to help in whatever the situation called for, from moving rocks to making a fine evening dress. In the movie, Robby was portrayed by a man in a robot costume, but was listed in the credit as playing “himself.” Robby would appear in other movies and several TV shows in following years. A mechanical version of Robby was made for the TV series, Lost in Space. Many boomers will remember Robby from that TV show rather than the movie that originated the character.
The Day the Earth Stood Still was a fantastic cautionary tale about the dangers of letting our technology get the best of us — particularly our nuclear capabilities. It was the first anti-nuclear proliferation movie. Again, for a young boy, the robot character loomed large. Quite literally, the robot from another planet, Gort, was a giant among men. His handler was the alien, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie.
Men, ever driven by ignorance, shot Klaatu, causing the robot to go into a defensive/protection mode. Gort’s weapon of choice was a laser that was fired when its eyewear visor swung open. Nothing could stop Gort, as it melted guns and even tanks, while leaving humans untouched whenever possible. Ultimately, Patricia Neal repeated the famous line spoken earlier by Klaatu himself, before he passed out: “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto.” Gort carried Klaatu back to the space ship and brought him back to life with the help of the onboard technology.
If you haven’t seen either of these movies in a while, Mister B humbly suggests you go directly to your movie ship list and add them now. You’ll find them great fun in a nostalgic way, and terrific as an adult boomer.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for robot toys, including the ever-popular Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots that we haven’t even mentioned, rest assured that online auctions have plenty available for bidding. In fact, a quick check reveals you can still get an original Mr. Machine for less than $20 (out of the box, of course).
What memories of robots dance through your boomer past? Did they give you nightmares or hours of fun … or both?