Alpha the Robot

This year’s Brighton Science Festival started on 13 February. To mark the occasion, we learn more about a lively episode at an earlier similar event.

In 1932, Brighton was leading the way in the scientific world by hosting an exhibition of the latest technology at the Dome. The star turn at the event was a robot named Alpha, “trained” by his inventor to fire a pistol on the sound of his master’s voice.  However, as so often with new technology, there was a bit of a technical hitch, as the Argus newspaper reported at the time:

Alpha the Robot
Alpha the Robot

ALPHA THE ROBOT

Fires a Revolver at its Maker

MYSTERY HITCH DURING BRIGHTON SHOW

For a reason that cannot be explained, Alpha, the robot, which is on view at the heating and electrical exhibition in the Dome, Brighton, shot his maker, Mr Harry May, in the hand on Saturday evening. The accident occurred during a performance when there was a large audience present.

Among the many extraordinary things which the robot does is to fire a revolver when it is told to do so and Mr May was loading the gun when it was suddenly discharged. Only dummy bullets are used but there is a hole in the barrel where the blast from the shot comes out, and Mr May had his hand over this when the trigger was pulled. Normally when Mr May is loading the gun the robot says “Mind or I’ll blow your blinking hand off.” On Saturday, the glistening figure just uttered the word “Mind” before it pulled the trigger.

Inexplicable

Mr May told an Evening Argus representative that he could not explain why the robot should have fired the gun before it was ordered to do so.  “It is mechanically perfect,” he said, “and the only reason for its amazing act I can think of is that unintentionally somebody in the audience must have said something which reflected upon the super sensitive mechanism inside the robot which caused it to fire. When the gun went off I was blinded by the smoke and my hand was badly burned.  Indeed, if I had not been wearing thick gloves I think part of it would have been blown away.  Seeing what had happened people in the audience screamed, but I was able to prevent a panic.”

Not the First Time

He added that it was not the first time the Robot had acted without his command, because twice before it had crashed its heavy metal arms down on his head.  “Nevertheless,” he stated, “if I am physically capable I shall continue my shows with it because I am determined to show that I, and not the robot, is the master.”

With his right arm in a sling, Mr May gave another performance after the accident on Saturday, and this time the robot fired the gun when it was told.

Staff at Brighton History Centre came across this story after an enquiry from a French academic writing a research paper on the life and works of various automata and robot makers.

Shona Milton, History Centre Officer

2 Responses

  1. Great story! Does anyone happen to know the name of the french academic or have access to his/her research paper?

    • kevinbacon

      Thanks for your comment, Ed.

      As I recall, the source of this was a local paper.

      Best,

      Kevin

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