Karel Capek, R.U.R, and why we call robots like that.

Karel Capek is a renown Czech writer. Apart from his other works he wrote a few science fiction and fantasy works. It has to be noted that at that time sci-fi wasn't yet considered a separate genre. In his works sci-fi is often used as a prism through which different issues can be explored.

The most important of his works from robotics point of view is definitely the play Rossum's Universal Robots or R.U.R., published in 1921. First of all, this play is the reason why the word 'robot' was invented. Furthermore, it explores different issues that could arise if artificial life was created.

It has to be noted that robots in Karel Capek's play are quite different from those machines we regard as robots today. In this play a scientist named Rossum manages to synthesize matter that can then be used to create artificial yet functional organs and tissue similar to natural ones. Something like artificial stem cells.

Although Robots' origins are biological they are 'mechanical' in any other sense of the word. They are mass manufactured as grown-up individuals, they eventually go out of order because of wear and tear and they can be designed as needed. Typical models have no individuality whatsoever and most humans regard them as machines.

Karel Capek

Karel Capek
Karel Capek

I got a bit ahead of myself. Before diving into origins of the word 'robot', the way it was invented and the delicate details of the play I want to tell you something about Karel Capek himself, the literary heritage he left and his life.

Karel Capek was born on January 9, 1890 in Male Svatonovice, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary, modern day Czech Republic. Born in a doctor's family he had an older brother - Jozef and an older sister - Helene. During his childhood he had to move several times and change schools.

After high school he pursued a degree in Philosophy at the Charles University of Prague. During his university years he spent some time at different places around Europe. Probably these are the reasons of the philosophical nature of his works and his awareness of different world affairs.

Although he lived in rather turbulent times he wasn't enlisted to fight in the first World War because of back problems. Apart from being employed as a journalist and later an editor, he led an active life and was involved in different social and political activities. And of course - he wrote.

In 1938 it was clear that the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany is imminent. Although it was known that Karel Capek was named as the public enemy number 2 by Gestapo he refused to leave his homeland. Quite the contrary, until his last breath on December 25, 1938 Karel Capek tried to use his influence in Europe to prevent the Nazi threat.

Karel Capek is deservedly regarded as one of the early science fiction writers. He wrote works that can be regarded as sci-fi before it was recognized as a genre. However, his literary pursuits didn't end there. He wrote detective stories, fairy tales, general plays and travel notes too.

R.U.R. and why we call robots like that

R.U.R. poster
R.U.R. poster

The story goes like this. One day an idea struck Mr. Capek's mind. An idea of a play about artificial human-like beings that are manufactured to work for humans and the issues that could arise in such a situation. There was one problem though - he couldn't come up with an appropriate name for these beings.

So he sought advice from his brother - Jozef Capek, a painter and a good friend. It was Jozef who suggested to call these artificial beings 'robots'. The word comes from a Czech word 'robota' which means serf labor, hard work. If Jozef hadn't come up with this word we would probably call robots 'labori' now, as that's how Karel initially intended to call them.

As you see, the main reason why R.U.R. is so important in the context of robotics history is probably the invention of the term itself. However, not only that. Although Capek's robots were quite different from what we regard as robots today, Capek in his play explored different issues that are or may one day become relevant in real life robotics.

First of all I really like the contrast between different motives behind robot creation. Today many of the most sophisticated and amazing robots are created just to prove something. Prove that it's possible, prove that it's achievable. Also in the play this was the main motive why these 'robots' were created in the first place, as can be seen in these quotes:

Helena: What exactly was it he tried to do?
Domin: Imitating Nature. First he tried to make an artificial dog. It took him years and years, and the result was something like a malformed deer which died after a few days. I can show you it in the museum. And then he set to work making a human being.
Domin: Something like that, yes, but old Rossum meant it entirely literally. He wanted, in some scientific way, to take the place of God. He was a convinced materialist, and that's why he wanted to do everything simply to prove that there was no God needed. That's how he had had the idea of making a human being, just like you or me down to the smallest hair. Do you know anything about anatomy, Miss Glory?

This was old Rossum's main motive why he created 'robots'. The other motive which eventually takes over is profit of course. Other important issues include whether there should be 'human rights' for human-like machines, problems that could arise if robots would take up majority of jobs, robots use in warfare, etc.

Apart from these 'robot-related' issues, the play makes you think about other general topics, such as the meaning of humanity, the importance of work in people's lives on one hand and the evils of slavery on the other. Also, what are the possible consequences of excessive greed and power of corporations and so on.

As you can understand it's a worthwhile read. You can read Karel Capek's R.U.R. online for free here.

I guess you can say that R.U.R. is a predecessor of such sci-fi hits as the Terminator and the Matrix, yet it's highly philosophical. No wonder if Karel Capek graduated as a philosopher from the university. In either case, this is an important play in the light of robotics history because this is where robotics actually started. At least the name.






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