We are the Robots

The_steam_man_of_the_prairies_(1868)The word robot first appeared in the English language in 1923 with a translation of the 1920 stage play R.U.R.‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ by Czech playwright K. Čapek. It originates from the Czech robota which translate as ‘forced labor.’ Despite the word robot being less than a century old, the concept of the mechanical servant dates back much longer . . . well, 1868! The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) by Edward S. Ellis is generally considered to be the first appearance of a robot in literature. The book was the first U.S. science fiction dime novel and archetype of the Frank Reade series. As a writer, Ellis was better known for his historical works and biographies, but The Steam Man of the Prairies was reissued six times from 1868 to 1904.   TiktokEllis may have been the first to write about robots, but almost four decades later it is L. Frank Baum, the author of  The Wizard of Oz, whom is regarded as creating the archetypical image of the robot with his clockwork creation Tik-Tok. Baum introduced Tik-Tok (also spelled Tiktok) in Ozma of Oz (1907) where he is described as a round-bodied mechanical man that runs on clockwork springs which periodically need to be wound. His operations: movement, speech, and thought all run on differing springs, but when they run down he becomes motionless and silent; unfortunately Tik-Tok can not wind up his own springs. Being a robot, Tik-Tok does not feel emotions, but as a servant he is honest and nothing but loyal, describing himself as a “slave” to Dorothy. Despite appearing in many of the Oz novels, the character of Tik-Tok (as with with many other inhabitants of the Land of Oz) commonly falls into obscurity behind the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man that danced and sang with Judy Garland’s Dorothy in the 1939 movie adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. In 1985, however, Tik-Tok managed to make it to the big screen in the film Return to Oz which combined several of Baum’s other books in the Oz series, but mostly The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz.

Compared to the Tin Man, Tik-Tok has so many more elements of popular Steampunk tropes that it surprising that this humble robot has not appeared more prominently in Steampunk culture. Next year it will have been 30 years since Hollywood discovered him . . . perhaps it is a time for a Tik-Tok renaissance?


Tik-Tok as he appeared in 1985.

heavy_gear_flourish TTB CCE Flyer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to toolbar