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Jasper and the first robot

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

In autumn 1928, one of the non-magic acts booked to fill-out the programme of Maskelyne's Mysteries at St. George’s Hall, was ‘The Robot – A Spectacular Vision of the Future Metropolis’, produced by Captain Alban J. Roberts.

Captain Alban J. Roberts and his robot

A New Zealand-born inventor, Roberts served with the Royal Naval Air Service (R.N.A.S.) in World War One. He was no stranger to St. George’s Hall, having performed there in 1921 and 1923, and possibly on other occasions. His act consisted of demonstrations of automata – mechanical devices in humanoid form - wrapped up in an entertaining manner, such as ‘dancing’ within a chorus line.

Robert's robot in a chorus line

The term ‘robot’ wasn’t coined until 1921 and it wasn’t attributed to a mechanical man until 1927. So, Roberts’ automaton was one of the very first to be described as a robot.

Clad in Egyptian style robes, the device moved around on a singular round base, with a space-frame body, having an elaborate sculptured head with moving lips and eyebrows. It was controlled wirelessly. Jasper recognised the publicity potential of Robert’s invention and arranged for a public demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square, a mile from St. George’s Hall.

The event was filmed by Gaumont Graphic, a silent newsreel company, whose newsreels were exhibited as part of larger cinema programmes. The 46-second black and white film, titled Mechanical Robot Being Demonstrated In Trafalgar Square By Maskelyne The Magician, starts with a slate printed with, “What is it? It walks - it talks - and it even winks.” Several clips of the robot follow. It moves around Trafalgar Square, there is a close up of the robot’s face, its lips moving and eyes blinking, and there’s a shot of the mechanics underneath its robes. Jasper just about be seen in the film, accompanying Roberts as he controls the ‘robot’. (This is the first known record of Jasper appearing on film.)

For its time, the automaton was leading technology and the news item garnered Maskelyne – who featured in the headline rather than Roberts – huge publicity. The newsreel was sent around the British Empire, and the event was widely reported; including, for example, in The Times of India Illustrated Weekly. Of course, associating himself with this novel invention linked Jasper back to the famous automata (such as Psycho) developed by his grandfather.

John Nevil Maskelyne and his most famous automata, Psycho

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