The Man Who Invented The Word “Robot”: Karel Čapek


The word “robot” appeared for the first time in 1920, in a drama written by a Czechoslovakian author Karel Čapek. The play’s name was R.U.R., an abbreviation for Rossum’s Universal Robots, a company which plays a prominent role in the story. Little did the humanist, intellectual, philosopher, journalist and writer know that the word he invented would spread at the speed of light all over the world and would become a common term for artificial beings. Little did he also know that R.U.R. would become first in the long line of “robot apocalypse” stories of modern science fiction.

The word was supposedly actually the invention of Čapek’s brother, Josef, who is known to Czech and Slovak public mostly for his books for children and as a painter. Reputedly, Karel Čapek originally wanted his artificial humans to be called “labors” (using English term, the same way he called the company Rossum’s Universal Robots rather than Rossumovi univerzální roboti, as the Czech equivalent would be). This close we were to actually call everything we nowadays call “robots” as “labors” instead. But Karel, as many writers often are, was not content with the term he invented, and complained about it to his brother during one of their conversations. “You know what,” Josef said, “then call them robots.”

The original poster for the play
The original poster for the play

The word robot has Slavic origin – from the term robota, meaning work. The robots in R.U.R. are made for one purpose, to replace human workers. They are designed as “better workers”, lacking any “unnecessary” feelings or thoughts not related to their work. As Domin, the Chief General of Rossum’s Universal Robots explains in the introductory scene:

“The best sort of worker is the cheapest worker. The one that has the least needs. What young Rossum invented was a worker with the least needs possible. He had to make him simpler. He threw out everything that wasn’t of direct use in his work, that’s to say, he threw out the man and put in the robot. Miss Glory, robots are not people. They are mechanically much better than we are, they have an amazing ability to understand things, but they don’t have a soul. Young Rossum created something much more sophisticated than Nature ever did – technically at least!”

Later, Dr. Gall of the R.U.R. company begins experimenting on new robots on the request of Helena Glory, the founder of the League of Humanity which pushes for emancipation of robots. Eventually, some of them acquire feelings and – in the end of the play – become very human. But meanwhile, there comes the inevitable stage where first, humanity starts decaying and using robots for war, and eventually the robots turn on their creators. The play has a very tragic end, but at the same time with a very strong feeling of hope, which is typical for some of Čapek’s stories. Robots prevail and wipe out all humans, but two of them, named Primus and Helena (after the main female character of the play), start showing human-like emotions and affection for each other, and the last living human gives them a blessing reminiscent of that God gives to Adam and Eve in the biblical story. Humanity has destroyed itself by creating robots, but the robots have a chance for a new beginning and hope for the continuation of life.

There is one important thing to be said about Čapek’s robots. They are artificial beings,but they are not robots in the same sense we mostly understand it. They are not metal, rather, they are organisms created artificially out of a different kind of protoplasm discovered by R.U.R.’s founder, Rossum. It was actually Rossum’s son who made the manufacture of robots into a succesful business. Rossum senior wanted only to prove that humans do not need God to create life, but it was his son who saw the real potential in the discovery. As is common with Čapek and many early sci-fi authors, the story about robots is not primarily about robots themselves, but lays before of the reader deep questions regarding the nature of humanity, its place in the universe, the structures created by its society, social issues, human attitude to progress and use (misuse) of science in near-sighted way for profit or for war and directing one’s hatred at others.

A scene from the theatre performance of R.U.R.
A scene from the theatre performance of R.U.R.

Čapek wrote several novels which could be considered science fiction, and they usually have those themes in common. The War with Newts, a novel where humans discover a species of intelligent amphibians, start breeding them for labour and later for war until they, too, turn against humans, is very similar to R.U.R. Krakatit describes the invention of a weapon capable of destroying the world, years before nuclear weapons became reality. Absolute at Large tells humorously about the discovery of a kind of “divine power manifested materially”, which first leads to spiritual awakenings among those who have been “exposed” to it, but then humans turn on each other because everyone wants only “their” religion to be right.

All in all human pettiness, short-sightedness related to greed, and hidden hatred are all themes resurfacing in Čapek’s work as much as in R.U.R. That is however what makes it strikingly actual even after almost a century. I remember when I read R.U.R. the first time, some of the quotes affected me quite strongly.

Helena: I thought… if they were like us, if they could understand us, that then they couldn’t possibly hate us so much… if only they were like people… just a little bit…
Domin: Oh Helena! Nobody could hate man as much as man!

In this way, I daresay not only the word robot itself, but also the whole story is still alive. When you read it, of course you notice it is a hundred years old, but even for that it is strikingly modern.

And if not for that, then there are obviously still many elements which found their way into modern sci-fi stories. From Asimov’s laws of robotics being clear answer to Čapek, to identities such as Skynet or A.L.I.E. who see themselves as having a “better” vision of the world than that which humanity provides. What is perhaps the most direct relative to robots from R.U.R., in my opinion, are the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica – as “humanity’s children”, and also for the religious dimension similar to what Čapek alludes at. For illustration of all this, consider these quotes from R.U.R.:

Domin: (reading) “Robots of the world! We, the first union at Rossum’s Universal Robots, declare that man is our enemy and the blight of the universe.” Who the hell taught them to use phrases like that?
Dr. Gall: Just carry on reading.
Domin: This is all nonsense. They say here that they’re more developed than man, more intelligent and stronger, that man is a parasite on them. This is all simply vile.

And also in the words of the robots themselves, and their leader, Radius:

Robot 2: We wanted to be like people. We wanted to become people.
Radius: We wanted to live. We are more capable. We have learned everything. We can do everything.
3. Robot: You gave us weapons. We had to become the masters.
Robot: We have seen the mistakes made by the people, sir.

And at least one more very similar descendant from the classic SF should be mentioned: the replicants from Blade Runner (or, actually, from Philip K. Dick’s book by which the film was inspired, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). There is one obvious “outward” similarity – the replicants are closer to Čapek’s robots than to the metal machines, and also, like the replicants, they have only limited lifespan (one of the important themes of R.U.R. is that after twenty years, the robots would die, and like the replicants in Blade Runner, their tale seems to have a similar tone of desperation). There is one scene in the beginning of the play, when Helena comes to the robot factory and the Director General lets her talk to his female robot secretary, Sulla. That scene reminded me very much of the famous scene from Blade Runner when Deckard meets Rachel. I do not know if there was any direct inspiration, but it is of course possible.

I wonder what would it be like if somebody made, for example, a film out of R.U.R. nowadays that would try to be modern, yet stay faithful to the original’s message and tone. True, like I just said, we have seen many of its themes many times. I am also not sure how easy it would be, for the audience used to Hollywood’s grand scale and straightforward explanation of everything, to transfer Čapek’s subtle irony which underlies much of the story. Nonetheless, it could be made into a great story, because, well, it is a great story. And if you feel like reading R.U.R. yourself, there is nothing easier – it has been translated into English already right after its premiere in 1920s, and now it is in public domain, since it’s been almost 80 years since the author’s death, and the story, being actually a play, is not very long. If you do, I am sure you will agree that there is still much it can tell even to a modern reader.

Rostislav Kurka
Rostislav is a Protestant theologian and a self-trained Sith, counting Jan Hus, Dorothee Sölle, Darth Revan and Darth Traya among his main influences. He hails from the hundred-towered city of Prague, where he had spent a large part of his life creating worlds and inspiring young generations to roleplay. His involvement in organising children's camps led him to accidentally writing a Lord of the Rings musical, which made him temporarily famous, and a Three Musketeer-Jedi fanfilm, which didn't. He has recently moved to the frozen waste of Finland, because that's it, the Rebels are there.