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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Japan's First Robot - #6

Welcome to part six of the seemingly endless string of information I am bringing to you that revolves around calendars, clocks, old plays and movies, carpentry, automatons, robotics and shame. It's only seemingly endless, because part eight will be the end of the current string. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Here's Part #6 - Japan and its first robot!

Back in the 1970s I recall hearing how Japan was using robotics in its auto manufacturing plants to better automate its production lines. The thoughts at that time were that these damn robots are taking away jobs from people - but since it was Americans thinking this, as Japan began to eat into the American dominance in the auto industry, people thought that was fine.

Back in the 1920s, it is reported that "robots began appearing in department stores in Japan." I can actually find no proof of that and assume it is actually automatons being sold in Japanese department stores.

The U.S. created the first humanoid robot, Televox, in 1927.
Based on the animated automatons, Japanese biologist Nishimura Makoto (surname first) (1883-1956) of Osaka was in 1928 the first in Japan to construct a humanoid robot named Gakutensoku (學天則), which translates to 'Learning from the Laws of Nature'. At the very top of this blog is a photo of Gakutensoku.

This robot was a three-meter tall robot that looked like a Buddha consisting of the upper torso of a body seated behind an altar.

For movements, Gakutensoku could open and close his eyes, change his facial expressions, lift a spiky scepter with his left hand and move a pen-like arrow with his right hand to write Chinese figures - not Japanese kanji!

The scepter would light up whenever the robot would lift his head to peer at the sky. That scepter-lamp was known as Reikantō (霊感灯, Japanese for 'inspiration light). When the lamp would shine, that was when the robot would begin to write with the pen.

To be honest, this sounds like a larger-than-life-sized automaton, but it did consist of some neat inner workings. And... if you compare Japan's robot against the first one ever built by the U.S., the skill level of the finished product seems almost laughable.

Nishimura Makoto inventor of first Japanese robot
Powered by a ventricular system made of rubber tubes and air compressors, Gakutensoku was able to puff out his cheeks giving one the impression that he could breathe.

In his writings, Nishimura says, “The expanding force of compressed air works as energetically as purified blood. Once used air loses its utility and is discharged through a designated waste pipe...It would be sad to find joy in making a slave-like android that simply copies humans, which are masterpieces of the earth.”

Gakutensoku was displayed at department stores and exhibition in Kyoto, Tokyo and Hiroshima.

Aha! Perhaps Gakutensoku's visits to the department stores is what they mean when they say 'robots began appearing at Japanese department stores'.

After this, Gakutensoku was taken to parts of Asia and Europe, including Germany... and it was during its tour of Germany when the massive robot and display became lost for all time.

I suppose I could make a parallel here to Germany's customs recently confiscating a Japanese musician's Stradivarius violin worth $7.6-million claiming she may plan to sell it. That story HERE.

The father of Gakeutensoku, Nishimura was a professor at Hokkaido Imperial University, studied marimo (floating moss balls) and was an editorial adviser to the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun newspaper now called the Mainichi Shimbun.

The many face of the replica robot, Gakutensoku copying what the original could do.
As for our metal man, Nishimura, like all scientists had a noble goal in mind when he built it. According to a quote from the Osaka Mainichi Shinbun newspaper of the day: "If one considers humans as the children of nature, artificial humans created by the hand of man are thus nature's grandchildren."

If our Japanese robot did indeed disappear in Germany... perhaps he rose up against the humans and became an evil overlord... taking the place of a crazy wall-paper hanger named Hitler, and ruled the world after figuring out how to grow a mustache similar to comedians Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps this robot was actually the one to destroy a facial hair style forever.

Okay... obviously I'm kidding... but not much is known about where or even when exactly the robot disappeared.

As a final note, we should say that there were at least two performances of of the play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in Japan by the time that Nishimura had created his robot.

And, for your viewing pleasure, take a look at the video below showing a re-creation of the Gakutensoku robot built by a project organized by the Osaka Science Museum about five years ago. This one is 3.2 meters (10-foot, six inches) in height and can do all the things the original did, but this time the robot is moved via computer-controlled pneumatic servo motors... and cost ¥20,000,000 (Cdn/US $250,000).

Andrew Joseph

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