Saturday, 14 May 2016

Museum hopes to rebuild UK's first robot



Museum hopes to rebuild UK's first robot

In today's fantastic age of automation and advanced robotics, with creations like Honda's ASIMO, human-looking androids and unmanned drones posing the question of where this technological development may ultimately lead us, it is easy to forget that the beginnings of modern robotics date back almost a century.  Indeed the very term "robot" was only coined in 1921, when it appeared in the Czech play R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots) - an early piece of science-fiction that like so many since depicted a future mechanical uprising by intelligent machines.

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A scene from the 1921 Czech play R.U.R., written by brothers
Josef & Karel Čapek


Within a decade (perhaps, as some social commentators have suggested, as a response to the remarkable level of mechanization seen in the First World War) robots had evolved in all-metal humanoids, the most famous in fiction being the Maschinenmensch "Maria" in Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi epic Metropolis.



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A year later, in 1928, came one of the first real-life robots (as we would know them today) to be built in Britain (and maybe even the world), the rather unthreateningly-named Eric.  Constructed primarily from aluminium (yet still weighing in at a hefty 45kg), Eric was able to stand, move his arms, legs and head, "blink" his eyes and - supposedly - speak (although this last was really a bit of trickery involving someone off-stage) thanks to two 12-volt electric motors, eleven electro-magnets and about 3 miles of wiring hidden beneath his armour-like exterior.  Amazingly all of this was put together at very short notice for the 1928 London Exhibition of the Society of Model Engineers, by Captain Willian H. Richards (the society's secretary) and his friend Alan Reffell, after the Duke of York (later King George VI) pulled out of giving the opening speech.  Thus Eric the Robot made his inaugural appearance, drafted in to give the Duke's speech - surely one of the first instances of a robot being brought in to do a man's job!

It's fascinating to read of the response of the crowd to this unexpected guest speaker, as described by Popular Science Monthly, and how in so many ways it still chimes with our own hopes and fears about the future of technology nearly 100 years later:

"The Thing's enormous size and the stark immobility of his face gave him a really terrifying quality... [the crowd] returned his lifeless gaze.  They felt subconsciously that here was some strange symbol of relentless Fate itself."

Personally I like the idea of a machine that would "Rid the World of Drudgery" and, despite the rather frosty initial reception, it seems that audiences of the time agreed as Eric went on tour to technology fairs around the world throughout the rest of the 1920s and early 1930s.



However Eric's ultimate fate remains a complete mystery; no trace of him exists after about 1932.  Whether he was dismantled, destroyed or is still sitting in someone's shed somewhere waiting to be rediscovered we may never know, but now comes the exciting news that the London Science Museum intends to build a full-size replica of the original Eric to become one of the main attractions of its 2017 Robots Exhibition.

It sounds an intriguing project, all told, and I feel sure that the Science Museum will be able to raise the funds to build the new Eric.  I look forward to reading more about his reconstruction and seeing this important early milestone in the history of robotics in London in 2017 - just as long as he doesn't go mad and try to overthrow humanity!

**The Science Museum's Kickstarter campaign "Rebuild Eric: The UK's First Robot" can be found here**

Saturday, 30 April 2016

"What are the 39 Steps?!"

Good day, everyone! Apologies for the month-long radio silence; once again time seems to have flown by, aided and abetted by many different things good and bad (among the good being another article for In Retrospect magazine, due out at the end of May!).

Another bit of good fun that I attended a few weeks ago was a performance of the long-running theatrical comedy version of the classic Hitchcock film The 39 Steps, which is currently on tour around the country and which was being put on at my local theatre, The Palace in Westcliff-on-sea.

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This charming 104-year-old theatre has been through its own share of ups and downs over the years and is perfectly suited to this kind of production - indeed the age and design of the place only added to the enjoyment, in my opinion.

Now I must have been the last chap in the country with an interest in vintage to have seen this play (since it's been on at The Criterion in Piccadilly Circus for 10 years) but, on the off-chance that I'm not and you have no idea what I'm going on about, The 39 Steps is based on the 1935 film adaptation of the John Buchan book of the same name, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.  Rewritten as a comedy, much of the amusement comes from the fact that all the characters - including the extras - are played by only 4 (yes, that's right, four!) actors.  This naturally means a lot of quick-change action, both in characters and sets, which only adds to the comedy.



A smaller, more intimate theatre certainly seems to benefit the production as well, with the cast making good use of the balconies and even though I was towards the back I still felt quite close to the action.  Although as I mentioned I have not been to the show's home at The Criterion Theatre it looks to be one of the smaller West End venues and I don't doubt that that has been one of the reasons for its success as it would probably lose something of its tightness on a bigger stage.

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That very tightness was in full display on the Saturday afternoon I went to see it, however.  Even though it was the penultimate performance of a seven-day run - and a matinée to boot - the actors all seemed full of pep and vigour and consequently their performances felt very fresh and accomplished.  Of course everything was slight exaggerated for comic effect but it never went too far and there was no whiff of ham to be found.  Richard Ede played the part of Richard Hannay very much in his own way - and successfully too - with the odd nod to Robert Donat and just the right level of humorous chappishness.

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The sets, such as they were, were also excellently done and again managed to capture the essence of the storyline without ever hampering the pace of it - in fact a lot of the time it was quite the opposite as the removal of props and setpieces was often integrated into the action with hilarious results!  Likewise the occasions that required a quick change by one or more of the actors were accomplished with aplomb, very cleverly and funnily.

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Naturally one of the big attractions is the costumes and here again the show comes up trumps.  The three-piece suit Hannay was wearing in the performance I saw was even better than the one in these pictures - a wonderful oatmeal check that came very close to how I imagine Robert Donat's suit was in colour and style, topped off by a splendid pair of brown brogues.  It's nice for us chaps to have a bit of clothing envy now and then too, you know!

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The actress who played Annabella Smith/ Pamela has her own share of costumes too, of course - very close to those originally worn in the film I'm pleased to say - especially that famous double-pointed, bow-tie-fronted blue(?) and white dress.  Have a compare between the two, ladies, and tell me what you think!

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The whole thing builds up to a suitably climactic finish, with a healthy dose of silliness thrown in, and all in all it was a most enjoyable afternoon with the play fully living up to my expectations.  It stuck more or less completely to the plot of the 1935 film and was all the better for it.  I was pleased to note that some of the lines delivered verbatim from the original Hitchcock script got as many laughs as the action and the whole thing had the feel of a production that had been made with due reverence to the source but with a clever and witty rewrite that in some ways helped bring to the fore some of Hitchcock's more humorous touches in the film.

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And speaking of which, this post wouldn't be complete without a couple of stills of the hero - and heroine! - in that wonderful film which inspired the play.  In case you have never seen The 39 Steps ("what's the matter with you?!", I would ask) or just want to refresh your memory of it, thanks to the wonders of modern science it is currently available to view in its entirety on YouTube.  But of course, I expect you all to have it on DVD like any sensible cove. In fact I'm off to watch mine now and admire Robert Donat and his splendid houndstooth check suit.

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***The 39 Steps is continuing on tour until 2nd July 2016 and will be playing at these venues***

Monday, 28 March 2016

(Belated) Easter Greetings


Better late then never, may I wish a

Happy Easter

to all my readers, followers and visitors.  Here's looking forward to a wonderful Spring (once the weather's calmed down a bit). 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Spitfire flight over Southampton marks 80th anniversary



Spitfire flight over Southampton marks 80th anniversary

Can it really have been five years since I last wrote about the anniversary of the Supermarine Spitfire's first flight?!  Well, here we are again, and now even more unbelievably this beautiful and historic aircraft - perhaps the greatest aeroplane ever built - is an incredible 80 years old.

To celebrate this remarkable milestone two Spitfires have once again performed flypasts over the Solent on the Hampshire coastline, taking in all the sites that played a part in this fantastic machine's conception - the former Supermarine factory in Southampton where the Spitfire was designed and built, Southampton Aerodrome from which the prototype K5054 took off on that March day eight decades ago, and the grave of its creator, R.J. Mitchell.  



It would be going over old ground for me to tell (briefly) the story of the Spitfire's conception, so suffice it to say it's good to see this anniversary marked and the reverence in which this aircraft is still held.  One would have hoped for slightly more in the way of celebration perhaps, but maybe we'll have to wait for the 90th or 100th anniversaries to see something really special.  With luck we'll see these and many more; let's hope that the 50-odd airworthy examples will continue to be so for decades to come - the ultimate testament to this glorious piece of aviation design.

Now I'm off to watch First Of The Few!

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Tracey Curtis-Taylor finishes UK to Australia biplane flight

"Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana" (as the late, great Sir Terry Wogan once said) and once again time has indeed flown by - like an arrow, if not like a banana - since my last post on here.  You can't keep a good blogger down, though, so here I am again with a news item from last month featuring a wonderful lady adventurer who this blogger greatly admires.



Tracey Curtis-Taylor finishes UK to Australia biplane flight 

I've featured the adventures of modern-day aviatrix Tracey Curtis-Taylor on this blog before, specifically when she set out a couple of years ago in her 1942 Boeing Stearman biplane to retrace the route taken by the pioneer female pilot Lady Mary Heath from England to Cape Town, South Africa in 1928.  That journey was subsequently made into a B.B.C. documentary and jolly fascinating it was too.

Towards the end of last year Ms Curtis-Taylor undertook a new challenge - to follow the same route Amy Johnson took on her famous England-Australia flight of 1930.  In the same Stearman biplane as before Ms Curtis-Taylor took off from Farnborough in Hampshire in October to make the 14,000-mile journey across Europe, the Middle East, India, South-East Asia and Australia, just as Amy Johnson had done more than 80 years previously.

As the above article explains, Ms Curtis-Taylor landed at Sydney airport on the 9th January, thereby completing this massive trek and following in the slipstream of one of her inspirations and a proper heroine.   Tracey Curtis-Taylor is both of these as well, not only for her remarkable recreations of historic endurance flights but also for helping to keep the memory of these early aviatrices alive today, not to mention her involvement in encouraging more young women into the field of mechanical engineering.

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Tracey Curtis-Taylor mentions "not wanting to stop [flying]" in the above clip and the good news is she that she isn't intending to any time soon.  That report briefly mentions the shipping of her aeroplane to Seattle for Boeing's centenary celebrations next year, but before that Ms Curtis-Taylor has stated her intention to fly her biplane across the breadth of the United States as her next adventure and I for one can't wait to follow her progress on this new feat of endurance, continuing to emulate the pioneer women pilots of the early 20th century.  Congratulations, Ms Curtis-Taylor, and the best of luck on your next endeavour!

**Further good news in relation to this story is that the B.B.C. will be broadcasting another documentary later this year following Tracey Curtis-Taylor's England-Australia flight.  No details have been released as yet but expect it to be shown on one of the main B.B.C. channels some time in the Spring.**

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Flying Scotsman: Famous engine back on tracks



Flying Scotsman: Famous engine back on tracks

It's not very often that we're prepared to wait ten years for a train to arrive, but when that train is pulled by a world-famous record-breaking steam locomotive then it becomes another matter entirely!

Yes, this is the welcome news of the much-anticipated return of the LNER Class A3 4472 Flying Scotsman steam engine to mainline passenger-carrying service following a ten-year, £4.2 million restoration.

Such rebuilds (and new builds) are always gratifying but in the case of the Scotsman there is an extra level of excitement at its return, due no doubt to the way it has captured the nation's imagination ever since its unveiling in 1924 at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, London.  In the intervening 92 years it has cemented its reputation as one of the most well-known steam engines in the world and is rightly celebrated as an ultimate example of British engineering at its best.  Having been the first locomotive to travel non-stop from London to Edinburgh in 1928 (hauling the service from which it took its name) and the first to break the 100mph barrier in 1934 the Scotsman earned a place in our island story from almost the beginning of its career.

It was this fame and affection that saved it from the scrapheap in 1963 when it was bought by businessman and railway enthusiast Alan Pegler, restored at Doncaster and then sent on an international tour to the United States and Australia.  Subsequent owners William McAlpine and Tony Marchington did their bit to keep the Scotsman in steam and in the hearts and minds of people around the world until 2004 when it was finally acquired by the National Railway Museum in York.

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Complete restoration followed in 2006 with the aim of returning Scotsman to as near original condition as possible and at the same time renewing its boiler certification, but unforeseen problems pushed the initial 2010 completion date back to late 2015.  Complete with a new boiler - the only original A3 Class boiler in existence, in fact, replacing the later A4 Class type that Scotsman had used since an early 1980s refit - the famous engine finally moved under its own power for the first time in ten years for test runs on the East Lancashire Railway on the 8th January.

In Pictures: Flying Scotsman returns to tracks for tests

Barring a few small issues with the brakes these tests have been largely successful and the Flying Scotsman is due to make its triumphant return to the main line in early February on an inaugural run from  London to York, following a spiffing new British Rail green paint job.  Understandably tickets for these initial runs have all been snapped up within hours of going on sale but there will of course be the chance to see the Scotsman in all its glory at the NRM and hopefully any later London runs will not be booked up.  With any luck she may even embark on another national tour - either way it would certainly be something to travel on such an historic train.  Here's hoping, and in the meantime a hearty "welcome back!" to this much-loved engine.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Wishing You A Sweet '16


And "Your Good Health!" For 2016
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