|home > History Making robots > Alpha > Practical Mechanics||14 March 2013|
It seems to have started off as The Roboter and later been modified with variations in the head and breastplate as Alpha although the voice of Alpha was still male.
While the Time article prints an explanation given by Harry May of how Alpha works by use of a cathode-ray oscillograph and circuitry which responds to relative pitch variations to trigger the various responses, this would seem to be showmanship jargon. Anybody who tried to build such a system in the days before desktop PCs became commonplace will know how unreliable the results were even when the system worked at all. Consequently after listening to the Pathe film in which Alpha responds to normal, rather than carefully intoned speech, it seems quite clear to me that Harry May used a human assistant to switch the motors on and off and to either answer directly into a microphone or to start playing the relevant wax cylinder.
The "Roboter" starred at the London Radio Exhibition of 1932
The close up of the internals of the chest does not look like as the Time article puts it "a mechanism like the interior of an ordinary radio" (well maybe it did to the newshawks) but rather it appears to contain two electric motors (the shiny black objects), one for each arm, and above them two large coils of wire on a horizontal shaft each with two electrical connections of curly wire. The coils are probably the electromagnetic clutches/brakes to prevent the arms crashing down when the motors were turned off at the end of the arms upward travel. They do not look like the cable winding drums mentioned in the Practical Mechanics article because the bobbins are very full of wire, the windings are very neat and they have the electrical connections just mentioned.
Alpha - Practical Mechanics article February 1934
The Robot Book by Robert Malone 1978, ISBN 0-15-678452-1 p50
"Alpha, a female robot of great pulchritude, amazed the British public in the 1930s with such feats as rising from her chair and answering questions put to her by spectators. There was some speculation that Alpha was bugged, and that the questions were actually answered off stage via a remote microphone. Alpha weighed two tons and was said to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day to keep her weight down."
Note that in the Pathe film Alpha answers that she weighs one ton, clearly an answer designed to impress.
Video - Pathe News' THE FACE OF THINGS - TO COME! (ALPHA THE ROBOT) 6/12/1934
Alpha the Robot answers questions from a man and flirts with a girl
Alpha was exhibited at the 1935 San Diego Fair
Guide Book page 290
Alpha, The Robot, was one of the exhibits in the Palace of Science (now Museum of Man).
The 1935 Official Guide Book stated that Professor Harry May, Alpha's inventor, could make the 6 ft. 2 in., 2,000 pound mechanical man roll its eyes, open and close its mouth, shake its head, sit down, stand up, move its arms, fire a revolver, and answer questions with amazing precision.
The caption says it all.
Le « professeur » Harry May et la robot Alpha.
Illusionnisme du plus bas étage.
The changing heads of Alpha
An image of The Roboter was used by Eduardo Paolozzi in his 1960 collage 'Dr Dekker's Entrance Hall'
Contributor - Reuben Hoggett
Last week Alpha, the robot, made its first public appearance in the U. S. One of the most ingenious automatons ever contrived by man, a grim and gleaming monster 6 ft. 4 in. tall, the robot was brought to Manhattan by its owner-inventor-impresario, Professor Harry May of London, and installed on the fifth floor of R. H. Macy & Co.'s department store. Encased from head to foot in chromium-plated steel armor, Alpha sat on a specially constructed dais with its cumbrous feet securely bolted to the floor, stared impassively over the knot of newshawks and store officials waiting for the first demonstration. The creature had a great sullen slit of a mouth, vast protuberant eyes, shaggy curls of rolled metal. In one mailed fist Alpha clutched a revolver.
Professor May, a dapper, blond, beak-nosed man in his middle thirties, signaled his assistant who drew a curtain behind the stage, revealing the massive control cabinets to which the robot was wired.
Said the crisp British voice of Professor May: "Wake up!"
The eyes of the automaton glowed red.
The robot clicked and whirred. Pivoting at knees and waist, it slowly stood up.
"Raise your right arm." Alpha gave a tremendous Nazi salute.
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. Finally when May requested the creature to raise its arm and fire the pistol, the arm went up, the metal forefinger pulled the trigger, the firing-pin fell with a click. Professor May explained that store officials would not permit him to use blank cartridges.
Alpha's master asked his auditors to give any of his questions and commands, using exactly the same words. Sometimes the robot responded promptly, sometimes not until Professor May repeated the words.
For such pictures as King Kong Hollywood has devised automatons capable of more complex movements than Alpha, but never one that responded to the human voice. Anxious to avoid any suspicion of ventriloquism or of a hidden assistant pushing control buttons, Professor May removed the robot's breast plate, disclosing a mechanism like the interior of an ordinary radio. Publicly he explained that Alpha's repertory of answers consisted of 20 or 30 recordings on wax cylinders, as in oldtime phonographs, which were run off in the control cabinets and reproduced from the loud speaker in the robot's chest. Alpha cannot really understand language, but he can respond to a variety of set questions the answers to which have been prepared in advance.
Privately Professor May explained more. Heart of the robot system is an ordinary cathode-ray oscillograph, an electronic device which, when voice modulations are converted into electrical impulses as in a telephone, makes a jagged up-and-down record of them. Since different voices are differently pitched the device is rigged to ignore absolute pitch but to respond to relative pitch variations which occur in sequence in certain word combinations as pronounced by most speakers. Different combinations of variations close different combinations of relay circuits, and each combination of circuits is hooked up to the appropriate wax cylinder which supplies the answer, or to the proper motor which moves the robot as directed. Thus Alpha may answer "Seven" when asked "How many days in the week?" but remains dumb if the question is phrased "A week has how many days?"
Alpha was not quite correct in giving its age as 14. Professor May, a clever free-lance experimenter in electronics who is now working on voice-operated safes for banks, conceived Alpha 14 years ago but did not endow the robot with its present versatility until last year. He says it is now foolproof although it has not always been so. Once it fired its pistol without warning, blasting the skin off the professor's arm from wrist to elbow. Another time it lowered its arm unexpectedly, struck an assistant on the shoulder, bruised him so badly that he was hospitalized.