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Matt McIrvin's Steam-Operated World of Yesteryear


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The Quasar robot hoax
mmcirvin
The Paleo-Future blogger just put up this wonderful spread from a 1970s children's book on robots, showing a couple of "real" models doing housework. I agree with Aaron T. who says that the creepily humanoid "Maid Without Tears" looks like some variation on the "Miss Honeywell" trick, a woman in a robot costume made to appear to be assembled from hollow mannequin parts via a stage-magic illusion.

But what about that conical, sphere-headed robot in the foreground? I remembered that one—that it was called something like "Klaatu", despite the fact that Klaatu was the guy and Gort (or Gnut) was the robot—and remembered vaguely that it turned out to be a media hoax. Matt of Paleo-Future says he's got a bunch of newspaper articles ready to scan. I can't wait, but in the meantime, I looked up everything I could.

This was the "Quasar Industries" robot hoax of 1977-78. In the wake of Star Wars, people were crazy for robots, and Anthony Reichelt of Quasar Industries said they could have a robot capable of doing household chores Real Soon Now.

Sometimes it was called "Klatu"—this page cites a wonderfully bogus explanation for the name, from another 1978 kids' book called "Robots Robots Robots":
its name we’re told was bestowed on it as a result of an error in its voice-recognition system. until the error was rectified, the robot repeated “klatu” - the phonetic reversal of “you talk” which were the first words addressed to it.”
Of course, its "voice recognition" module was really the guy behind the curtain mumbling into a hidden microphone; the robot was at best a remote-controlled shell, at worst a person in a robot suit. (They may not have actually done any man-in-suit demos—the exhibited models were usually remote-controlled rolling automata with nonfunctional arms but motorized shoulder joints, controlled wirelessly by two people, one doing the voice—but the design suggests to me that putting a person in the shell was at least considered!)

The comments for that page have some choice reminiscences from people claiming to be associated with Reichelt: "max" calls Reichelt a "lovable con-man" and says there were several robot bodies, made partly of fiberglass built at a local Corvette shop.

It sometimes seems to have been exhibited under the odd name of "Sam Strugglegear". Under that name, at a department-store demo in late 1977, it was investigated by some roboticists with ARPANET access who soon realized that something was up (that's converted from an old mailing-list archive; search for "Strugglegear" and "Klatu" to get to the goodies). The episode eventually led to some people getting nervous about Quasar somehow retaliating against people badmouthing them on the government's ARPANET, and the whole thing became an early milestone in the discussion of free speech and defamation on computer networks.

Contrary to what some people have said, I don't think Reichelt was a rogue employee of the Quasar that sold consumer electronics; that is and was just a trademark of Matsushita Electric (along with Panasonic, JVC, and many others), and this feels too penny-ante for them—they'd have been concentrating on importing Japanese TVs at this point. Nor is this Quasar related to any currently existing company called Quasar—there's a Quasar Industries in Michigan that could have built his robot dummies, but it's always been a Detroit-area firm, not New Jersey.

No, this was just a classic case of a fraudulent start-up looking for gullible investors. But Reichelt surely benefited from association with the well-known brand.

Update: So... I click on that headshot of Klatu on the Nonist page, and what should come up but a full frontal view with "PANASONIC" in huge letters down the front of the robot!! So was this Matsushita Electric after all? If so, why was this guy seeking outside investors? Maybe he was a Matsushita USA employee gone haywire! Or maybe the robot was just shilling for Panasonic at a trade show. Wheels within wheels...

This brings back memories, I remember having at least two books about robots when I was a kid that mentioned Quasar. I didn't have the book in the link, I think one of them was "The Look and Learn Book of Robots" or something. I was obsessed with robots when I was a kid (still am!) and used to read about them all the time. I was in awe of Quasar because it seemed so advanced compared to other robots!

I dimly remember lots of molded plastic shells that didn't do much if anything. I was fascinated by Androbot because it looked like it ran on two wheels (I didn't even know about the caster wheel) but it didn't have any arms.

Also, my mind was blown by seeing this in a magazine somewhere, but I haven't been able to come up with much in the way of information about Ben Skora or "AROK".

There seem to have been a lot of robots that were capable of posing with a vacuum cleaner in a still picture.

Ben Skora and Arok are real...

(Anonymous)

2010-12-24 11:02 pm (UTC)

Late reply, I know - but both of them are real; Arok is basically a cobbled-together robot using various bits of junk and such, radio-control gear, tape players/recorders for various stuff (I think there's some taped program control, like the Tomy Omnibot series used). All in all, a very impressive machine for the time, built by an interesting individual. His house is shaped like a UFO (Skora custom built it) - very retro (but futuristic at the time!). A few years back, they had a special about him on some home program on TLC (or some such channel) - the program was one of those "strange and weird houses" specials (I never saw the episode, but I heard that the robot still works!). This all isn't to say that the robot was sophisticated or such, but it certainly shows off a certain inventive "mad" genius!

I think I had that book too. Even as a kid, I thought the name "Maid Without Tears" was indescribably creepy; to say nothing of the fetished-out gynoid itself...seemingly forever bound to the kitchen by long, draping wires. Huh. "without tears," my shiny metal ass.

Also, I love how the TV is so tiny. We may not have butlerbots but our TV's are fucking HUGE.

Creepier still: you can still hire the Miss Honeywell act for your trade-show spiel. It sounds as if it's basically the same shtick.

I have vague memories of something very similar to the Robotic Woman trick showing up in Ib Melchior's The Time Travelers, a low-budget 1964 science-fiction movie with the unusual distinction of having several of its special effects done on set with stage-magic gimmicks.

Garco here appeared on Science Fiction Theater at some point and probably partially inspired one of my "Scientifiction Playhouse" vignettes.