I’ve always thought that Brighton has a lot of steampunk appeal. Quite apart from the potential for criminal mastermind lairs within the the Victorian sewers, there are a whole slew of wonderful inventions from the mind of Magnus Volk.
The Volk’s Electric Railway is still in use today. The Daddy Long-Legs, alas, is not. And while the Jubilee clock tower still stands in the centre of town, its moving parts have been disabled (due to noise complaints and damage to the structural integrity):
The hydraulically operated copper sphere moved up and down a 16-foot (4.9 m) metal mast every hour, based on electrical signals transmitted from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
But even with all this steampunk history, I was still surprised to read the story of Alpha the robot on Paleo-Future:
During the autumn of 1932 a group of curious onlookers assembled in Brighton, England to see inventor Harry May’s latest invention, Alpha the robot. The mechanical man was controlled by verbal commands and sat in a chair silently while May carefully placed a gun in Alpha’s hand.
It all goes horribly awry according to contemporary reports, doubtless exaggerated. I, for one, welcome our new metal overlords.
Cyberneticzoo.com has more details on Alpha, including Time magazine’s account of its 1934 tour of America:
When commanded, the robot lowered its arm, raised the other, lowered it, turned its head from side to side, opened and closed its prognathous jaw, sat down. Then Impresario May asked Alpha a question:
“How old are you?”
From the robot’s interior a cavernous Cockney voice responded:
May: What do you weigh?
Alpha: One ton.
A dozen other questions and answers followed, some elaborately facetious. When May inquired what the automaton liked to eat, it responded with a minute-long discourse on the virtues of toast made with Macy’s automatic electric toaster.
David Buckley has more details including a spread from Practical Mechanics explaining Alpha’s inner workings.