In this chapter from The Salt Lake Tribune on Sunday, October 23, 1932, we learn about the unsettling incident that took place during a live demonstration of a mechanical man named Alpha in Brighton, England. The story highlights the concerns and awe surrounding the development of robots and their potential for good or bad.
The chapter begins by setting the scene at a large gathering of British society members who had come to witness Harry May's demonstration of Alpha, his invention, and marvel at its versatility. Alpha, a massive, wireless-controlled mechanical man, was designed by May to precisely respond to spoken commands such as smoking, reading newspapers, walking, telling time, and even answering questions.
Throughout the performance, the audience was amazed by Alpha's human-like responsiveness, although they were also a little disturbed by the uncanny display. To further prove the capabilities of his mechanical man, May decided to demonstrate Alpha shooting a gun at a target. Despite some reluctance and apprehension from the audience, May assure them that his invention was delicate and precise enough to hit the target.
However, the demonstration took a disastrous turn when Alpha fired the gun before May gave the proper signal, resulting in the bullet shattering May's right hand. In the aftermath of the chaos, Alpha obeyed May's commands to return to its chair and drop the gun. While attendees left the hall in shock, May and Alpha remained behind.
Mr. May, treated for his injured hand, expressed confusion over Alpha's unanticipated actions, wondering why it disobeyed his commands. Despite the incident, he remained undeterred in his pursuit of perfecting Alpha. However, it was unclear if future demonstrations would include Alpha operating firearms.
The chapter also delves into the history of robots and their influence on literature, with iconic authors like H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe addressing the concept of mechanical humans in their works. It is mentioned that the famous story of "Frankenstein" acted as a cautionary tale, illustrating the potential dangers of creating a being without a soul. The story suggests that, if the unpredictable behaviour of Alpha is any indication, mechanical men might develop motives and wills of their own.
The chapter concludes by exploring how robots might play a part in the human world, such as in combat or performing household tasks, albeit being too expensive for the majority of people at the time. The past influence of robots on literature, theatre, and other mediums, reveals the long-standing fascination with these mechanical creations and their potential impact on human society. In the end, the chapter successfully communicates the intrigue, fear, and anticipation surrounding the advancements in robotics in the early 20th century.