Today in Literary History – January 9, 1890 – Karel Čapek, the science fiction writer who invented the term “robot” is born

The Czech writer Karel Čapek was born on January 9, 1890. He was a prolific writer in multiple forms — drama, novels, essays — but is best known now as a writer of science fiction (a category that didn’t exist in his day) and as the inventor of the word “robot.”

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The word originated in Čapek’s 1921 play “R.U.R,” which stood for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti or Rossum’s Universal Robots in English. They play is about a factory that creates synthetic human beings from organic matter — more like androids or the replicants in Blade Runner than mechanical robots — to be used as slaves.

Čapek’s roboti are indistinguishable from actual humans and have self-consciousness. By the end of the play the robots have thrown off the yoke of slavery and exterminated the human race. The term robot comes from the Slavic word robota which meant a forced labourer or serf under the old feudal system.

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The play was hugely successful and was translated into more than two dozen languages. In 1922 an English version of “R.U.R.” was staged in London’s West End and on Broadway in New York. (Both Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien made their Broadway debuts in “R.U.R.”) It also became a very popular play in America during The Depression in productions by the WPA (Works Project Administration).

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Čapek also wrote the satirical science fiction novel War With Newts in 1936. It describes a war with an intelligent breed of newts who eventually, as in “R.U.R.”, rebel against mankind. It satirizes colonialism and the rise of fascism.

Čapek was an ardent pacifist and opponent of both fascism and communism. He was active in PEN International and founded the first Czech chapter.

He had been a semi-invalid most of his life due to an arthritic condition is his spinal column. He died in 1938, on the brink of World War II.

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