The Robots exhibition at the Science Museum is a fascinating (and a little creepy) history of human-like automata

Steve Hogarty
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Animatronic baby on display in the Robots exhibition © Plastiques Photography (Source: Science Museum)

Greeting you when you first enter the Robots exhibition at the Science Museum is an animatronic baby, pinned like some prized insect to a wall of pulsing lights. Commissioned especially for the exhibition and built by a special effects company, the mechanical baby repeats a series of pre-programmed animations, sneezing and wavings its arms and legs about.

Were it not upright and suspended six feet above the floor on a disco-wall, you could almost believe it was the real thing. Yet mecha-baby is realistic enough to trigger a reaction in visitors, whether that be one of affection, repulsion or faint bemusement.

The collection on display features more than one hundred such humanoid automata, from that very expensive one Honda made (that took an unexpected nose-dive down some stairs), to an unlikely sounding 16th-century clockwork monk. The earliest of these machines were evolutions of astrolabes, hand-wound and cog-powered dummies that predated much of our understanding of anatomy and evoked the idea of the body as a machine.

Automaton monk, attributed to Gianello Torriano, Spain, c.1560 / Asimo by Honda (Source: Smithsonian Institution)

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the term ‘robot’ was coined and they became ingrained in popular culture, and the exhibition includes several stars of science-fiction, such as the T800 Terminator. Modern examples of life imitating art then follow in a series of increasingly competent looking, self-balancing bipedal walkers.

The few dozen working robots on display give the exhibition the air of a futuristic zoo, and leave you feeling strangely uneasy in their presence. It would be the absolute worst place to be when the uprising begins, but in the meantime this is an unmissable event for the robo-enthusiast.

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