Reading Eagle (August 21, 1944)
By Westbrook Pegler
New York –
The word robot which we have applied to that German flying bomb is not pronounced roe-bot, as so many of us think. Nor roe-boe as though it might be French, but rubbut. It was introduced to this country in the early 1920s by the theater guild in a play presented at the Old Garrick, which has since burned down, called R.U.R., meaning Rossum’s Universal Robots.
The author was Karel Čapek, pronounced Chapek, of Prague, who later surpassed R.U.R. with another called, variously, The World We Live In and The Insect Play, in which the whole disgusting human race, reduced to the scale of insects, went to war because the red ants and the black ants got into a dispute over the pathway between two blades of grass.
Čapek, being himself a Czech, or anyway a citizen of Czechoslovakia, lived right in that very pathway, but when I suggested this to him during a call at his office, in a newspaper shop in Prague in the winter of 1936, he patronized my alarms in a lofty way. I believe he figured that Russia and France would prevent the Nazis from overrunning his country. Anyway, it was his good luck to die of natural causes before it happened.
R.U.R. was a little scant on logic but so noisy and exciting that it took a few days for our intelligentsia to get over their shudders and detect the little flaws.
Miss Theresa Helburn, the administrative director of the Guild, has filled me in with some offhand recollections of the story and with her own stab at the moral which Čapek was trying to make. The scene was an island where the Rossom Company was manufacturing a soulless, subhuman, flesh-and-blood creature roughly in the form of man and, generally very dumb, docile and durable, to take over the laborious tasks of the human race. Miss Helburn’s idea of the moral is that Čapek wanted to say that labor is necessary for the wellbeing of man. This seems inconsistent to me, however, if I am correct in my belief that Čapek was, if not a Communist, then anyway a great friend of their philosophy which constantly promises a world of longer and longer vacations, shorter working hours and increasing luxury. The ultimate goal would be a life of effortless ease never interrupted by toil. And here, if Miss Helburn is right, Čapek was warning the human race that man would degenerate and destroy himself if he quit work.
The robots were a great success. They were shipped all over the world to relieve the human race of physical work but Helena, the heroine of the piece, there on the island where she married the manager of the robot factory, felt sorry for them and wanted to give them souls. Her father was president of the company, incidentally.
Encouraged by Helena, a scientist in the plant continued to improve the robots who then began to have ambition and to resent their status in the world. However, the human beings were overconfident and slow to take alarm because about the nearest thing to an expression of emotion of which a robot was capable was a kind of fit. And when a robot got too temperamental, the practice was to send him to the stamping mill and pulp him, so to speak, as we melt down the scrap metal of an old car, and use the material over again. The girl thought this a very unprepossessing practice.
In the end, there was an awful uprising, with blood all over the sky and the people on the island wiped out, all but an old gardener. At his age, and in the absence of any human mate, he was in no position to get the human race off to a fresh start but, thanks to the scientist’s experiments, a couple of very tasty young robots, male and female, appeared who actually were human and he sent them forth at the close of the show, saying “go man, go woman” or something very close to that.
They might have found another human race, but, as I said, the logic was loose like an old union suit. They and their progeny wouldn’t stand much chance in a world of robots and the secret formula for the creation of the superior robot with a soul had been burned in the revolution.
It is Miss Helburn’s recollection that robot was a word that Čapek just made up, but it just happens that I asked him about that and was told that it was a Russian word meaning, approximately, a very low grade of serf with no rights whatever. A strong back and a weak mind, if any.
We have had a robot pilot or automatic flying device which relieves the human pilot of much of his strain and now this flying bomb, also called a robot. But, as you will see, the name is only roughly appropriate in either case.
Anyway, the pronunciation is not roe-bot nor roe-boe. This is official. It is rubbut.