Decades ago, E. O. Wilson once famously said “we have paleolithic emotions […] and godlike technology”. Today, with our pocket computers, each millions of times more powerful than Apollo-era computers used to put man on the moon, this is perhaps truer than ever. But let’s not forget that ‘tech anxiety’ isn’t a 21st-century construct.
Imagine being born in 1880. By the time you reached the ripe old of 80, the world would have looked dramatically different. During the span of your lifetime, you’d have lived through the invention of the radio, automobile, airplane, rocket, transistor, and satellite. Your father used a horse and buggy to get to work but your kids can now get from New York to Paris in 12 hours. Looking back at these two worlds, the 19th vs the 20th century, they seem so far apart they’re almost alien from each other.
The 1911 short film The Automatic Motorist seems to capture the spirit of these fast changing times and there are many striking things about it. The film, which is a remake of a now lost 1906 version, introduces a newlywed couple which is taken for a ride by a robot and its inventor. This is an extraordinary moment. Let me explain.
The word “robot” itself comes from a work of fiction, Karel Čapek’s play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) which was written in 1920. What’s widely considered as the first appearance of a robot, though they didn’t call it this way at the time, is Harry Houdini’s 1919 The Master Mystery. But here’s the thing — The Automatic Motorist appeared 9 years earlier and the robo-chauffeur is also better looking than Houdini’s Q. In other words, this may actually be the first appearance ever of a robot on cinema.
Check out the film in its entirety courtesy of the British Film Institute (BFI) which was kind enough to upload it. It was directed by W.R. Booth, a former stage magician turned filmmaker.
Is this the first robot movie? Quite possibly
The sci-fi adventure is truly a work of art. You might not think too much of the production work now but keep in mind this film was released in 1911, only a couple of years after the 1902 Georges Méliès classic Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon), which was really the first genuine moving picture that actually told a story. During that time, people were excited to go the movies and see silent moving pictures of trains puffing or people sorting mail. Imagine their reaction when they saw this trip — a mechanical man-like contraption driving people to an alien planet where they became assaulted by lilliputs only to come crashing back to Earth.
What’s funny is that this is also essentially the first rendition of a driverless car on film. Yes, it’s a human-like machine with hands on the steering wheel but technically it’s not human, hence not a ‘driver’ and by this train of thought these wheels are self-driven.