In 1920, a Czech writer was stumped. He’d written a play about a future where machines that looked like people do our bidding. They were the perfect workers: obedient, hard working, and never demanded a pay raise. But what was the writer to call these marvelous machines? There wasn’t yet a word for this type of creation.
He had initially chosen labori, from the Latin for labor, but something about the word wasn’t quite right. It seemed...stiff, bookish. This play wasn’t just about machines who labored. It was about machines we exploited, relentlessly. And eventually, the writer landed on a word that fit better: Robot.
Robot comes from an old Czech word for drudgery and servitude. Though in his play - like so very many robo-dystopias to come - the writer showed that a mind we create to serve us, isn’t necessarily a mind we can control.
Footnotes & Further Reading:
See more drawings and diagrams in The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Ismail al-Jazari.
Check out some old footage of Unimate, the first worker robot.
This episode was produced by Johanna Mayer, Julia Pistell, and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. We had sound design and mastering from Chris Wood. Our music was composed by Daniel Peterschmidt. Thank you to Craig Cravens, senior lecturer at Indiana University, for helping us with research about Karel Capek. We had fact checking help from Danya AbdelHameid. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer.
This season of Science Diction is supported by Audible.