Robots in Film
A Complete Illustrated History
of Robots in the Movies

Early to 1939

Robots in Film
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | Early-1939 | 1940-1955 | 1956-1963 | 1964-1967 | 1968-1973 | 1974-1978
1979-1983 | 1984-1986 | 1987-1990 | 1991-1994 | 1995-1997 | 1998-2002 | 2003-2007 | 2008-2010 | 2011-now

Robots in the Movies
Film/Year, Name of Robot and Film Description

First Robots - in Literature

The Steam Man, and Tik-Tok

  1. If the novel's title character can be considered a 'robot', Edward S. Ellis' science-fictional dime-novel The Steam Man of the Prairies - first published in Irwin's American Novels # 45 in 1868, portrayed literature's first 'robot' or nonsentient automaton - called the Steam Man. The 'mechanical' metal man, a steam-boiler used for locomotion to pull a carriage, was constructed of iron and was approximately 10 feet tall.
  2. L. Frank Baum's novel Ozma of Oz (1907), the third book of Baum's Oz series, featured the round-bodied Tik-Tok, made of burnished copper and with jointed arms and legs (with polished caps on them), and requiring its inner springs to be wound in order to function. The card on his back read:

    Smith & Tinker's Patent Double-Action, Extra-Responsive, Thought-Creating,
    Perfect-Talking Mechanical Man
    Fitted with our Special Clock-Work Attachment
    Thinks, Speaks, Acts, and Does Everything but Live
    Manufactured only at our Works at Evna, Land of Ev
    All infringements will be promptly Prosecuted according to Law
First 'Robots' in Literature

The Steam Man in
The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868)

Tik-Tok in
Ozma of Oz (1907)

L'Eve Futur (1896, Fr.) (aka The Future Eve, or The Eve of the Future)


This early film was based upon the 1886 published book, a classic science-fiction tale of the same name, by Auguste de Villiers de l'lsle Adam.

It told about a brilliant alchemist (modeled after Thomas Edison) who created a mechanical, robotic facsimile of his British friend Lord Ewald's beloved fiancee - a singer named Alicia Clary. The misogynistic alchemist's goal was to create a perfect and natural variation of Alicia, who would bring Ewald true happiness, without female personality problems or other physical imperfections.

The android (andreide), Hadaly, was indistinguishable from Alicia. It had a phonographic apparatus to realistically reproduce Alicia's voice, and was supernaturally endowed with the spirit of Sowana, Edison’s mystical assistant.


The Mechanical Statue and the Ingenious Servant (1907)

Mechanical Men

This very early, one-reel (or half-reel) film (survival status unknown) from Vitagraph and director J. Stuart Blackton, was the first American film with 'robot' predecessors - called mechanical men.

In the slapstick comedic story, a sculptor had hand-built a "mechanical statue" which danced when wound up. It was bought by a customer who took it home. There, a house-servant started it up, but the statue ran away. The "ingenious" servant was able to deceive the master of the house, pretending to be the 'mechanical' robot.

The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (1908)

Tik-Tok (The Machine Man)

Tik-Tok first appeared in film in The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (1908), presented in Baum's live travelogue stage presentation (with Tik-Tok - The Machine Man, portrayed by Wallace Illington). The multi-media presentation was a mix of live-action, hand-tinted 'magic lantern' slides, film, and Baum's own narration.

The cast of The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (1908)
Is Tik-Tok to the left of Baum?

[Note: Tik-Tok reappeared much later as the mustached Tik-Tok in Disney's film Return to Oz (1985). See later entry.]

Early 'Robot' Films in the Silent Era

In many cases in these early 'robot' films, the automatons (or automated thinking machines, often functioning as robots or servants) could prove to be dangerous or deadly after running amok, as in Frankenstein (1931).

Early depictions of "mechanical men" included these short films (often comedies and usually one-reel) - sometimes reflecting the encroachment of machinery and the increasing fear of industrialization:

  • An Animated Doll (1908), from Essanay
  • An Extraordinary Duel (1909, Fr.), , from Pathé Frères, about two dueling men (one black, one white) who kept destroying each other, but then were reanimated and rebuilt to continue fighting
  • The Rubber Man (1909), from the Lubin Company, about a mechanical creation that ran amok through a town and village before being short-circuited by being doused in a water trough
  • Dr. Smith's Automaton (1910, Fr.), from Pathé Frères
  • A Mechanical Husband (1910, UK), about a girl who objected to her father's choice of a man and fell in love with an automaton
  • The Automatic Motorist (1911, UK), a comedic fantasy take-off of Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon (1902), and a mix of live-action and stop-motion animation, in which a mechanical chauffeur drove a newly-wed couple on a honeymoon trip to Saturn
  • The Inventor's Secret (1911), from Biograph (and writer/director Mack Sennett), about a cop (Dan, portrayed by Sennett) who set out to retrieve a missing girl and collect a $500 reward, but mistook an automatic doll for the child
  • The Electric Leg (1912, UK), about the invention of a primitive prosthetic or electric leg for disabled individuals by Professor Bound, but for one amputee, the artificial leg had a mind of its own; he lost control of it and it took a man into a girls' dormitory
  • The House of Mystery (1912, Fr.), from Pathé Frères, with a mechanical policeman
  • Sammy's Automaton (1914, Fr.), about Sammy thoughtlessly turning a lifeless mannequin-dummy into an uncontrollable, lascivious automaton
  • The Automatic House (1915), from Empress, about an automatic maid in a "automatic house"
  • The Mechanical Man (1915), from Universal, about a "mechanical man" (Walter Frederick Trevallion, as Phroso)
  • Hoffmanns Erzählungen (aka Tales of Hoffman) (1916, Ger.), was told in three stories/parts about the hero's past loves; in the first, the hero young Hoffmann (Kurt Wolowsky) fell in love with a life-sized automaton, a living marionette named Olympia (Alice Scheel-Hechy); he had been duped by Coppelius (Friedrich Kühne) into wearing a pair of magic eyeglasses that made inanimate objects come to life; when the deception was revealed, the automaton was torn to pieces
  • Homunculus, 1. Teil (1916, Ger.), an expressionistic, six-part serial about diabolical, mad scientist Dr. Hansen's (Adolf Paul) (and his assistant Edgar Rodin's (Friedrich Kühne)) creation of a bitter, soulless, artificial man, the Homunculus (Olaf Fønss), that became tyrannical
  • A Clever Dummy (1917), from Mack Sennett and Triangle/Keystone, about an inventor named Samuel Tinker (James Donnelly) who created a remote-controlled mechanical robot dummy modeled after the building's janitor (silent film comedian Ben Turpin known for his crossed-eyes); then to further romance, the janitor traded places with the dummy during a vaudeville stage performance to get closer to a woman in the show with whom he was smitten.
The Automatic Motorist
(1911, UK)

Homunculus (1916, Ger.)

A Clever Dummy (1917)

The Golem (1920, Ger.) (aka Der Golem)


Paul Wegener directed three influential adaptations of the Golem legend by Gustav Meyrinck:

  • Der Golem (1914, Ger.) (aka The Monster of Fate)
  • Der Golem Und Die Tanzerin (1917, Ger.) (aka The Golem and the Dancer) - notably the first horror film sequel
  • Der Golem (1920, Ger.) (aka The Golem: or How He Came Into the World), with Karl Freund as cinematographer

The first expressionistic film was based upon Central European myths and influenced later 'Frankenstein' monster films in the early 1930s with themes of a creator losing control of his creation. The Golem, played by Wegener himself, was an ancient clay figure from Hebrew mythology that was brought to life by Rabbi Loew's magic amulet to defend and save the Jews in 16th century Prague from a pogrom threatened by Rudolf II of Habsburg.

The giant man-made, clay creature roamed and lumbered through the Jewish ghetto of medieval Prague to protect it from persecution.

The Master Mystery (1920) (aka The Houdini Serial, and Le Maitre du Mystere)

Q, or The Automaton

Director Burton King's and Harry Grossman's independently-produced serial (with 15 episodes, some of which are lost) was made by Studio Pathe in France.

It starred magician and trick escapist artist Harry Houdini as heroic Justice Department/secret service agent Quentin Locke who battled a threatening and criminal international cartel/corporation.

The serial featured a huge, mechanical, evil robot named Q or The Automaton (Floyd Buckley), the cartel's protective robot-servant. The criminal mastermind had a goofy-looking face and a barrel-shaped pelvis. Houdini exposed the robot as a human in disguise.

This film had one of the earliest (if not the first) on-screen theatrical representation of a traditional robot.

The Mechanical Man (1921, It.) (aka L’Uomo Meccanico)

Mechanical Man

Writer/director Andre Deed's short silent film (only parts of which survive, in a fragmented form) featured a giant, super-powered, 9-10 foot-tall, colossal evil "mechanical" robot, designed to commit robberies and create mayhem.

It was programmed and remotely-controlled by evil villainess adventuress Mado (Valentina Frascaroli) to cause severe damage with its fiery, acetylene blow-torch hands and its massive bulk.

The lumbering robot had headlights for eyes, and had the capability of running at high speed.

The film's finale featured a climactic battle at a masked ball in the Opera House between the first monstrous robot and a second mechanical robot, specifically created (with similar specifications) to destroy the first one.

Metropolis (1927, Ger.)

"Fake" Maria

This future dystopic silent film from director Fritz Lang featured one of the earliest robots (and also female!), a great iconic image. At the time, most robots were either asexual or male. The story was set in the year 2026 in the city of Metropolis.

The luxurious, futuristic, Art Deco city - an industrial world with skyscrapers and bridges, was divided or stratified into an upper, elite, privileged class of powerful industrialists and a subterranean, nameless, oppressed and exploited, ant-like worker/slave class. An elite, privileged ruling technocracy, led by Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), was run on the back-breaking labor of underground masses of toiling workers who ran the machines.

The children were cared for by the beautiful heroine Maria (Brigitte Helm), who brought them to a forbidden artificial grotto of the ruling class. There, her beauty overwhelmed Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the ruler of Metropolis, and he fell in love with her. When he went searching for her, he became appalled by the horrors of the working world and the waste of life. After discovering the workers' clandestine meeting led by Maria, Freder's controlling, glacial father conspired with archetypal mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) to create an evil, robotic Maria look-alike duplicate (explicitly created to replace a specific human), in order to manipulate his workers and preach riot and rebellion.

The Art Deco-styled female robot (also Brigitte Helm) was constructed and brought to life by Rotwang as a metal android (later inspiring Star Wars' C-3PO). It was supposed to resemble the dead wife of the city’s ruler. Rotwang had kidnapped the virtuous and compassionate union leader heroine Maria, and created an evil doppelganger of her in his laboratory - in a stunning transformation scene in which he copied Maria's face and body onto the metal surface of the robot.

She was to deceptively become an evil, seductive and sadistic version of Maria. The robot had a fully-armored head, with slits for eyes and mouth, sculpted shoulders, as well as a mechanically-jointed body with armor-like coverings on the legs and feet.

The android was created in order to discredit the real Maria by - among other things, performing lascivious, erotic dances to a frenzied male audience to incite them to riot (as part of the aristocracy's plan to brutally subdue them).

Der Herr Der Welt (1934, Germ.) (aka Master of the World)

Giant Industrial Robot, and Army of Killer Robots

Prolific director Harry Piel's fourth science-fiction film (of a quartet of films beginning in 1915) was a tale about robots created to take the place of human labor, but also posing a potential threat of taking over the world.

Robot inventor, machine manufacturer and scientist Dr. Erich Heller (Walter Janssen) and handsome mining engineer Werner Baumann (Siegfried Schürenberg) discussed a futuristic world where robotic machines would liberate mankind from hard labor or dangerous occupations (such as mining). In his work, Heller was assisted by Professor Wolf (Walter Franck), a demented and crazed colleague who had completed work on a giant robot (equipped with death rays) in Heller's long absence. While confronting Wolf with overstepping his authority, Heller ordered the entire project to be dismantled, and was 'accidentally' killed by the robot under Wolf's control.

Soon after, Wolf's evil plan was to displace mine workers with a vast army of killer robots, thus leaving the laborers unemployed. In fact, the robots were attacking the mine workers who tried to get their jobs back. Baumann had warned Wolf that the workers would revolt if they lost their jobs, although Wolf's evil plan was to crush any revolts with his 'war machines' and achieve world domination ("master of the world").

In a climactic scene in the laboratory, there was a stand-off between Baumann, now in love with Vilma (Sybille Schmitz) - the widow of Dr. Heller and rightful owner of her dead husband's company, and Wolf, who ordered his giant robot to attack Baumann. Wolf was assaulted and killed by his own machine when he was caught in the cross-fire of death rays (looking like static electricity bolts). The lab and the robot were destroyed in an explosion.

Giant Robot

Flash Gordon (1936)

Ming's Army/Guards (possibly non-robotic!)

In this popular 13-part serial, Flash Gordon (Larry 'Buster' Crabbe) and Dale Arden (Jean Rogers) met up with Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) on his rocketship and went to the planet Mongo to defeat the evil ruling emperor, Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton).

In the first chapter, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov were taken prisoner by Officer Torch and two helmeted, mechanized robotic guards. Ming's deadly army was composed of mechanical robotic soldiers with scientifically-advanced rifles. When they went outside, the guards appeared to be wearing some kind of undergarment under their armored suits.

[Note: Some regard the army's soldiers as non-robotic, as per the comic strip which portrayed the guards as human when they took off their helmets.]

Armor-Suited Robots

Undersea Kingdom (1936)


This early Republic Pictures serial (with twelve episodes or chapters) was produced in haste to compete with Universal's Flash Gordon serials. It starred naval action hero Lt. Ray "Crash" Corrigan (Ray Corrigan) and featured the lost city of Atlantis at the bottom of the sea.

Trash can-like robot soldiers with zap rays guns (Atomguns) called Volkites were commanded by warlord Unga Khan (Monte Blue), the evil tyrannical ruler of the Black Robes and remote-controlled by his henchman Captain Hakur (Lon Chaney, Jr.).

The Phantom Creeps (1939)

"Iron Man"

Bela Lugosi starred in his last serial, Universal's 12-part serial titled The Phantom Creeps, as mad scientist Dr. Alex Zorka intent on taking over the world.

He invented a fearsome, slow-moving 8-foot golem-like iron monster or robot that he referred to as "his iron man" (played by 7'4" tall stuntman Ed Wolff).

The robot was remote-controlled, designed to "crush all opposition and make me the most powerful man in the world" - according to Dr. Zorka.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Tin Man (aka The Tin Woodman)

In this beloved musical fantasy film, the Tin Man (Jack Haley) (aka The Tin Woodman in L. Frank Baum's original book) was one of the fanciful characters in the Wonderful Land of Oz. In fact in the novel, however, the Tin Woodman was originally born human as Nick Chopper, but because of many accidents with his own axe, he was forced to replace all of his body parts and limbs with tin - becoming a cyborg!

He was a silver-faced, funnel-capped robot who joined Dorothy (Judy Garland) on her journey to Oz' Wizard in the Emerald City to request a heart to fill his hollow chest ("The tinsmith forgot to give me a heart" and "If I only had a heart..."). He was first found rusted immobile from moisture and needed to be oiled to begin moving again.

Others who played the Tin Man in film include:

  • Oliver Hardy in the silent The Wizard of Oz (1925)
  • Al Joseph in The Wonderful Land of Oz (1969)
  • Nipsey Russell in the adaptation The Wiz (1978)
  • Deep Roy in Return to Oz (1985)

The Tin Woodman (Jack Haley)

Robots in Film
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | Early-1939 | 1940-1955 | 1956-1963 | 1964-1967 | 1968-1973 | 1974-1978
1979-1983 | 1984-1986 | 1987-1990 | 1991-1994 | 1995-1997 | 1998-2002 | 2003-2007 | 2008-2010 | 2011-now

Previous Page Next Page