William Grey Walter

ELMER – (ELectro-MEchanical Robot) | Machina Speculatrix

"ELMER - (ELectro-MEchanical Robot)" by William Grey Walter. You can see a person looking at a black and white tube TV. She wears headphones and sits on a white stool.
William Grey Walter
ELMER – (ELectro-MEchanical Robot) | Machina Speculatrix
Medium / Material / Technic
16-mm film, transferred to video, b/w, sound, 2:20 min.

This roughly two-minute newsreel from 1951 introduces robotics pioneer William Grey Walter. In typical newsreel aesthetics with quick-paced voice-over commentary and dramatic background music, a robotic tortoise is presented as an elaborate toy for adults and given the cute nickname Torby. The announcer claims that the artificial animal possesses an electronic brain which functions like the human mind. However, its behavior is repeatedly compared to that of animals.

This frivolous popularization of the invention fails to convey its trailblazing significance. In the late 1940s, William Grey Walter built the first electronic autonomous robots at Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol, UK. Walter called his artificial creatures »Machina Speculatrix«, referring to their imitation of searching behavior. The “scouting machine” was based entirely on electronic circuits, which were connected to external light and contact sensors, giving rise to the acronym »ELMER (ELectro-MEchanical Robot)«.

With his invention, William Grey Walter was able to prove that the successful construction of a “goal-seeking machine” did not depend on a large number of cerebral functions, but the complexity of their interconnections. This insight was transferred to our understanding of the human brain. In this sense, robotics is anthropology.

© British Pathé