Science Diction: The Origin Of The Word 'Robot'

Robot is a relative newcomer to the English language. It was the brainchild of the Czech playwright, novelist and journalist Karel Čapek, who introduced it in his 1920 hit play, R.U.R., or Rossum's Universal Robots. Science historian Howard Markel discusses how Čapek thought up the word.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

That means it's time for our monthly, well, sort of Science Diction, as we call it. We're exploring the origins of scientific words with Howard Markel, professor of history of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, also a director at the center for history of medicine there.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Howard.

Professor HOWARD MARKEL (University of Michigan): Hi, Ira. Happy Earth Day.

FLATOW: Happy Earth Day to you. Have you got a - what's the word - the good word for today?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, the good word today is robot.

FLATOW: Robot.

Prof. MARKEL: Yeah.

FLATOW: Robot. What is the origin of the word robot? Interesting.

Prof. MARKEL: Well, you know, we all think of these mechanical beings, you know, clad in metal with its blinking lights and making all sorts of funny sounds. And even some people think about modern robots, which help in modern engineering or even the conduct of surgery. But it's really a new word to the English language.

It was the brainchild of a wonderful Czech playwright, novelist and journalist named Karel Capek. He lived from 1880 to 1938. And he introduced it in 1920 in his hit play "RUR," or "Rossum's Universal Robots."

FLATOW: Does it have a Latin origin, or just - he just made it up out of thin air?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, it comes from an Old Church Slavonic word, rabota, which means servitude of forced labor. The word also has cognates in German, Russian, Polish and Czech. And it's really a product of Central European system of serfdom, where a tenants' rent was paid for in forced labor or service.

And he was writing this play about a company, Rossum's Universal Robots, that was actually using biotechnology. They were mass-producing workers using the latest biology, chemistry and physiology to produce workers who lack nothing but a soul. They couldn't love. They couldn't have feelings. But they could do all the works that humans preferred not to do. And, of course, the company was soon inundated with our orders.

Well, when Capek named these creatures, he first came up with a Latin word labori, for labor. But he worried that it sounded a little bit too bookish, and at the suggestion of his brother, Josef, Capek ultimately opted for roboti, or in English, robots.

FLATOW: Wow. And so he needed this for the play.

Prof. MARKEL: Yeah. And, you know, the robots - it's really a wonderful play. The robots do so well, they really kind of take over Earth. I mean, they take over the army. They take over all the work. Even human women can no longer reproduce because they've forgotten how. And so, the robots, after a while, say, hey, enough of this. We're going to take over the world. We're doing all the work. So it's sort of an allegory for a mass revolt of the workers unite and things get really bad. And all but one human being is killed in this play.

FLATOW: Wow.

Prof. MARKEL: The robots realize, oh, no. We've killed everybody who knows how to make robots. So they've actually guaranteed their extinction. And then there's this magical moment where two robots, a male and a female robot, suddenly developed the ability to feel, to love and have human emotions, and they go off into the sunset to make the world anew.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Wow. I could the sun's dawning already.

Prof. MARKEL: Yes, it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So it actually had a negative term in the play to begin with, then it sort of got redeemed toward the end.

Prof. MARKEL: Yeah. And, you know, Capek was a very interesting man, an interesting journalist and philosopher. He had - he was a democrat with a little D. He believed in democracy. And, you know, when he wrote this in 1920, there was the - the Soviet Union had started recently with communism, and there was also the World War I that had many people blamed on capitalism and...

FLATOW: Well, wasn't he also on Hitler's most-wanted list?

Prof. MARKEL: He was, indeed. And he was a very active opponent of Hitler, and wrote about it. And he was enemy number two on the Gestapo list. And he died in 1938 at the age of 48 of flu, just a few moments before the Gestapo had caught up with him. So he frustrated Hitler (unintelligible).

FLATOW: Oh, okay. Well, this is fascinating. Thank you very much.

Prof. MARKEL: Well, thank you.

FLATOW: And, Howard, we'll look forward to your next word. I know you've been thinking about it with great, robotic detail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MARKEL: I hope so.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you, Howard.

Howard Markel is professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and director of the Center for the History of Medicine there.

We've run out of time for this hour.

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