Trivia

Hard

Who Coined The Term “Robot”?

Gene Roddenberry
Charles Babbage
Josef Čapek
Isaac Asimov
A scene from Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.), showing three robots.
Public Domain (Unknown Author)/Wikimedia

Answer: Josef Čapek

The etymological road back to the first use of the word robot is a winding one. It would be easy to give the award to Isaac Asimov since he was the first person to use the term “robotics” and, through his prolific and well-received science fiction writing, helped popularize the idea of robots. Nonetheless, Asimov didn’t use the term “robotics” until 1941, and at that point, he was building on an already existing word.

A little over twenty years earlier, a Czech playwright by the name of Karel Čapek produced a play by the name of R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play centers around human-like, but synthetically created workers, much closer to what we would call androids in our present sci-fi lingo. In the play, the robots are conscious and much of the play focuses on whether or not they are, as thinking but man-made creatures, being exploited.

Karel had originally intended to call them “laboři” (from the Latin word labor, meaning “work”), but he did not like the word, seeing it as too artificial. He sought advice from his brother, Czech painter and writer Josef Čapek, who suggested using “roboti”, or robots—derived from the term “robota”. Robota literally meant “serf labor” and was used figuratively to refer to drudgery or hard work. The term caught on and robot became the go-to word for millions of people when describing autonomous laborers.

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