1950s robots weren't real. Well, at least not the famous ones. Today, the field of real robotics is just as exciting as its sci-fi counterpart, but in the 1950s, the big names in robotics belonged to the movies. Gort and Robby were the defining image of robots for the decade. 10 years later, that honor likely moved to Lost in Space's Robot. But even 60 years ago, there were cool things happening in the field or real robotics, like Squee the Robot Squirrel. Built in 1951, SQUEE was doing the same kinds of things today's hobbyist robots do in academic competitions, but with much older technology.
Squee came from the mind of Edmund Berkeley, who was a computer science pioneer and author of the book Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. Even before he wrote some very forward-looking stuff about the future of "thinking machines," Berkeley founded the Association for Computing Machinery, which still exists today. And in 1951, Berkeley did two things: He published the plans for Simon, the first personal computer, and he came up with the robot Squee.
Simon was called " the smallest complete mechanical brain in existence." Squee, too, looks pretty tiny by 1950s technology standards. Computers took up entire rooms or office floors, after all. Squee measured about two feet long and was only about 12 inches tall and nine inches wide. In 1956, Berkeley published a report on all of the robots and computers he'd been working on, and described Squee's design:
"It contains four sense organs (two phototubes, two contact switches), three acting organs (a drive motor, a steering motor, and a motor which opens and closes the scoop or "hands"), and a small brain of half a dozen relays. It will hunt for a "nut". The "nut" is a tennis ball designated by a member of the audience who steadily holds a flashlight above the ball, pointing the light at Squee. Then Squee approaches, picks up the "nut" in its "hands" (the scoop), stops paying attention to the steady light, sees in stead a light that goes on and off 120 times a second shining over its "nest", takes the "nut" to its "nest", there leaves the nuts, and then returns to hunting more "nuts". When Squee is operating, it is a dramatic and exciting example of a robot. It has been exhibited in New York, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis, and has always entertained and excited the audience. The machine however is sensitive to the surrounding light level, and usually has to be shown in a room about 8 by 10 ft. with only a small amount of overhead light and black curtained walls. Data: completed; rather well finished but not professionally; 75% reliable; maintenance, difficult; our costs, about $3,000."
Some of Berkeley's phrasing, like "sense organ," is interesting to look back on. Today we'd use the word "sensors," but "organ" would rarely be used in a sentence with robot. This is how Berkeley defined "robot," back in 1956:
As a result of the study and experience which we have had so far, we can put down some of our conclusions about present possibilities in small robots. Let us begin with a definition: A robot is a machine made out of hardware, wire, etc., which can receive or "sense" information from its environment using its "sense organs", perform actions or display behavior using its "acting organs", and perform logical or arithmetical operations correlating the sense impressions and the actions, using its "thinking organs " or "brain".
Berkeley didn't actually build Squee all by himself. The Computer History Museum has a great retrospective on the robot, including an interview with Jack Koff, who helped Berkeley build and demo the robot as a 21-year-old college undergrad in New York. Berkeley posted an ad on campus at the City College of New York looking for an engineering student to help build a robot. Koff became one of his assistants, and told CHM: "I had no idea what I was getting into…I applied for the job, had no trouble getting the job. So Berkeley said to me: ‘Here’s the robot, get it to work.’ So I took it home and worked on it at home… I’d go to Berkeley’s office maybe once a week… all the work was done at my home in an apartment in the Bronx."
Squee operated on a small stage around 15 foot square, and Koff shined the flashlight that Squee would respond to. The robot used up batteries in about 15 minutes.
Berkeley undoubtedly had a huge impact on the history of robotics. He created some of the first. Yet he wasn't really in it just for the sake of science, despite having a real interest in exploring "the intelligent behavior of machines and master[ing] their techniques."
Squee, and Berkeley's other creations, were designed to be, more or less, novelty advertisements. Berkeley wrote: A main purpose of this program was to make 'Robot Show-Stoppers,' to help meet the problem of an advertising director who wants to put into his display in a show or convention some device which will 'STOP' every person there and make him notice it."