The Science Museum will bring a 88 year old robot back from the dead for an exhibition next year

Update: Eric will rise again! With three days to go, the Kickstarter campaign has been funded and is now running £5,000 over.

The original story continues below.

Back in 1928, Captain Richards and A.H. Reffell built Eric, the UK’s first robot. Eric traveled the globe, dazzling crowds throughout the UK, America and Europe before disappearing without a trace. Possibly blown up, according to Ben Russell, the lead curator of an upcoming exhibition on humanoid robots the museum will be presenting in early 2017. “George was the follow up and he did get blown up – bombed in the war,” he tells me.

The exhibition will contain over 100 robots, ranging from 16th century mechanical monks to modern day creations, but unless he suddenly turns up or is rebuilt, Eric will be conspicuous by his absence. It’s the latter the museum is banking on, as it launches its first ever Kickstarter campaign to resurrect Eric. The museum is aiming to raise £35,000 for the project, allowing Eric to tour the world with the exhibition just as the original model did.

Rebuilding him will be no easy task. There are no ready schematics to bring Eric back from the dead, so how Eric-like will Eric 2.0 be? “We’d be rebuilding him with a curator’s eye for what looks right, based upon the relative scant evidence such as photographs which show his outsides very well, but not his insides.” Said insides will be based on whatever can generate the actions the experts know he was capable of. The £35,000 figure is, according to Russell, based on “a very careful and cunning spreadsheet of things, itemised to the tiniest detail.”

Even if Eric isn’t funded – and at the time of writing, nearly £1,000 has been pledged – the exhibition will go ahead. In the words of Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group, it’s an exhibit that will explore “the uniquely human obsession of recreating ourselves, not just through paint or marble, but in metal.”

Is that obsession universal? Broadly, Russell seems to think so. “How efficient is the human body to do a particular job? Very often it’s not. If you want to move lots of stuff very quickly, you want something that’s a very functional machine. We like to anthropomorphise. It’s just what we do: we tend to make things that look like ourselves.” Given I’ve been using gendered pronouns to describe the various robots for the duration of this piece, who am I to argue?

The collection stretches back 500 years, meaning that the focus of the exhibit is on replication of the human form, rather than the human mind. “For a long time, robots were just about the mechanisms of the body, then you get this transfer and they start to put the mechanisms of the mind in there as well,” explains Russell. “How things turn out in the next ten years is going to be really interesting.”[gallery:5]

Bringing over 100 robots to London is a huge undertaking, as you might imagine, and the exhibit has been in the planning stages for years. “We haven’t got that many robots in our collection,” says Russell, explaining that acquiring the robots from other exhibitions and dusty cupboards around the world has been a long period of numerous negotiations. “A lot of the robots have never been seen on display, they’re new commissions or they’ve been built specially.”

The showpiece is Cygan: a 450kg robot that will celebrate its 59th birthday this year. Using 13 electric motors, Cygan can perform a number of actions via radio control. At 7ft 8in tall, the machine can make even tall journalists feel a touch on the short side.[gallery:4]

Originally built in Italy, and now on loan from a lender in LA, Cygan will be around and about the museum from now until the exhibition begins. “We can do smashing things with him. Cygan was a showman, let’s do some showmanship with him.”

Robots will begin at the Science Museum from February 8 2017. With or without Eric.

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