In an article on BoingBoing about the DVD release of some of Houdini’s films, and in particular his serial made in 1918, The Master Mystery, which includes a robot [see my blog post here], it is claimed that this was “THE FIRST EVER ROBOT IN A MOTION PICTURE” [emphasis in original]. This made me wonder, given the 19th Century’s fascination with automatons of all kinds — from mechanical chessmasters to defecating ducks to robotic fluteplayers.
Here, for example, is Vichy’s Automaton Harpist from 1880:
So I decided to check. A brief non-exhaustive glance through Phil Hardy’s Science Fiction: The Aurum Film Encyclopedia revealed the following:
Gugusse et l’ Automate [aka The Clown and the Automaton] (France-1897; Georges Méliès) — length: 1 minute, film reported lost.
Coppélia ou la Poupée Animée [aka Coppelia the Animated Doll] (France-1900; dir. Georges Méliès) — length: 2 minutes, film reported lost. A version of Coppélia, a ballet by Délibes, in which a dollmaker animates a life-size dancing girl. Coppélia was inspired by one of the tales of Hoffman.
The Dollmaker’s Daughter (UK-1906; dir. Lewin Fitzhamon) — length: 10 minutes. Another version of Coppélia.
The Mechanical Statue and the Ingenious Servant (US-1907; dir. J. Stuart Blackton) — 7 minutes. Hardy writes:
“The first use of the automaton, mechanical man, or robot in American cinema comes, not surprisingly, from the creative director/producer Blackton. Equally unsurprisingly, the development follows the formula of Coppélia, filmed so many times by European producers.”
An Animated Doll (US-1908; dir. George Spoor, G.M. Anderson) — 12 minutes. Another Coppélia inspired film.
The Rubber Man (US-1909; dir. Sigmund Lubin) — 4 minutes. Says Hardy:
“The first American film to devise a form of automaton or robot that owes more to pure Science Fiction than the European legends of mechanical dancing dolls. Here, an inventor fashions a humanoid out of rubber, powered by electricity.”
In this one, the Rubber Man goes on a rampage, which has to be a first in itself.
Dr Smith’s Automaton (France-1910; dir. unknown) — 7 minutes. Film unavailable. One contemporary critic describes the automaton as “a man of buckram and hidden springs”. Also a robot run amuck story.
The Automatic Motorist (UK-1911; dir. Walter R. Booth) –10 minutes. Features a clockwork-chauffeur, who drives newly-wed’s car so fast it shoots into space, lands on the moon, veers off to Saturn’s rings, crashes through the planet’s surface — much the annoyance of the inhabitants, and is sent back by a benevolent entity. The robot drives on, taking the newly weds to the bottom of the sea, but the car is shot skyward by a volcanic eruption, whereupon the newly-weds parachute to safety while the robo-chauffeur continues on implacably.
The Inventor’s Secret (US-1911; dir. D.W. Griffith) — 8 minutes. Coppélia again, with its toymaker and life-like girl doll.
The Electric Leg (UK-1912; dir. Percy Snow) — 8 minutes. The bionic man!
Sammy’s Automaton (France-1914; dir. unknown) — 6 minutes. A critic wrote “The device by which the dummy is brought to life is most cleverly worked”. It’s another robot on a rampage.
Hoffmans Erzaehlungen [aka Tales of Hoffman] (Germany-1915; dir. Richard Oswald). Contains Hoffman’s story of Olympia, the mechanical doll, which (as Hardy puts it) “becomes the erotic obsession of the hero”.
Homunculus (Germany-1916; dir. Otto Rippert) — a six chapter serial. A ‘perfect’ creature is made in a laboratory, but:
“Having discovered his origins, that he has no ‘soul’ and is incapable of love, he revenges himself on mankind, instigating revolutions and becoiming a monstrous but beautiful tyrant, relentlessly pursued by his creator-father who seeks to rectify his mistake.” (Hardy)
That’s a lot of robots (or to be more precise, automatons) that predate Q, the robot from The Master Mystery (which turns out to be a fake anyway).