by Voyen Koreis

Helena and a Robot

There are many words, which have not been in use before the 20th century, but which in their way define the modern world, the world of technology, our world. Perhaps the most prominent among them is the word ROBOT.

The word “robot” and it derivates, such as robot-like, robotic, robotics, etc., have entered practically all the world languages. While one might perhaps imagine a tribe somewhere in the jungles of Borneo, living in total isolation from the civilization, which might not have any use whatsoever for the word ROBOT, there probably aren’t many people who would not have heard it or uttered it themselves, most likely quite often.

It all began in the heads of two brothers, both Czech writers (amongst other things), and with the problem one of them, Karel Čapek, laid up in front of the other, Josef Čapek. The problem Karel (the younger of the two by about three years) had was that he needed urgently to find a fitting name for a race of artificially created human-like beings featured in the stage play he was writing. The brothers have written some plays and other works together (notably The Insect Play, probably the second best known Čapek play), but in what were to become known as R.U.R., the older brother Josef's contribution was minimal in volume, though enormous in its impact.

Karel Čapek in the Czech daily Lidove Noviny on the Christmas Eve 1933 writes about it thus:

Prof. Chudoba mentioning the entry on the word “robot” in the Oxford Dictionary reminds me of an old debt. The word was not thought out by the author of R.U.R., in fact he only facilitated its introduction. It happened like this: 

In an unguarded moment an idea about a play came to the author. While still hot, he took it to his brother Josef, the painter, who was standing at his easel merrily painting away.

“Look Josef”, the author said, “I got an idea for a play.”

“What is it about?”, growled the painter (literally growled, because he held the brush in his mouth).

The author explained in a nutshell what it was about.

“Well, write it down”, said the painter without taking the brush out of his mouth nor stopping to paint on his canvass. It was almost insultingly indolent.

“But I don’t know”, said the author, “how to call those artificial workers. I thought about calling them labors, but it doesn’t sound right to me.”

“Well, call them robots,” muttered the painter with the brush in his mouth and continued painting. And that was it. This is how the word robot was born; let it be accredited to its true begetter.

So now we know that Karel Čapek had intended to name the artificial creatures “labors”, derived from the Latin word for labour, but somehow he did not like the sound of it. One cannot blame him; just imagine owning and using kitchen labors or attending a seminar on laborics..! My guess is that the word probably would not have caught on at all, and we would now be using kitchen whatevers or even something more sinister for the same job.  

In 1920, when the play was written, there would still have been a few very old people around who would have remembered robota. After all, this thoroughly dehumanising law was valid in Bohemia and Moravia until 1848 (till  1918 a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), when it was finally abolished by the decree of the Emperor. Full Serfdom, of which robota was the last remnant, was abolished only three or so generations earlier, in 1781 by the Emperor Joseph II. Robota, known in the English speaking countries as drudgery, villainage or corvée, meant that those in the subservient positions had to work (in the later stages only on specified days) on the property of their feudal lord.

The Robots in R.U.R. are created by a scientist, inevitably a mad one, to free the humans from the drudgery and elevate them to the higher spheres of learning. When things go wrong and there is an uprising, it resembles all those others staged by slaves in various places throughout the centuries, however with an even more profound impact.

The Čapek Brothers