Alban Roberts

Will robots inherit the earth? Yes, but they will be our children.
Marvin Minsky

Alban Roberts demonstrates his Kaiser Robot in a London street, in 1920
Alban Roberts demonstrates his Kaiser Robot in a London street, in 1920

After taking part in WWI, the New Zealand inventor Alban Joseph Roberts (1880-1950), who lived in England, started his work on automata. In early February 1920, he demonstrated “Kaiser” the Robot—an automaton that he controlled by remote control light waves. Next year, in 1921, Roberts demonstrated another life-size automaton controlled by light vibration. In 1924 he created for Circus Busch a female automaton on skates. In 1928 Roberts exposed in St George’s Hall, London a new robot, that looks like a sheik.

Robert’s “Kaiser” robot (see the nearby image from 1920) was an electrically powered automaton suited in sheet metal, that offered a walking/skating action without the need for an external prop. It was the first electrically powered automaton (in human form) to be remotely controlled (in this case by light), and was semi-autonomous (no external power or control wires), but not self-controlled.

Alban Roberts with his Robot man causes a sensation in a London street, 1928
Alban Roberts with his Robot Man causes a sensation in a London street, in 1928

From 1923 to 1928, according to media records, Capt. Alban J. Roberts was exhibiting and performing with his second automaton. This automaton is mechanically different from his earlier one (Kaiser) in that it has no individual legs, rolls around on a singular round base, has a space-frame body, and has an elaborate sculptured head with moving lips and eyebrows. The automatons garb appears to be that of an Arab. An article in a London newspaper from 1928 mentioned that:
Guided by an electric ray, this remarkable mechanical man amazed crowds in Trafalgar Square, London. Captain A. J. Roberts, inventor, is shown behind the robot, holding the device that guides and controls it.

Biography of Alban Roberts

Alban Joseph Roberts (1880-1950) with one of his robots
Alban Roberts with one of his robots, the middle 1920s

Alban Joseph Roberts was born in Wellington, New Zealand, on 24 August 1880. He was the son of William Henry Roberts (1840-1924) and his wife Kate Clara (Bowern) Roberts (1849-1912). Alban had two brothers: Fletcher Francis (1879–1972) and Howard (1882-1962), and a sister—Agnes (born 1889).

We don’t know where Alban was educated, but in 1903 he was already titled an electrical engineer and was living in Patea, N.Z., where he was the first engineer of Municipal Electric Lighting Works. He resigned in June 1904 and moved to Christchurch, in South Island, New Zealand, where he got his first (of many) patens, for a Meat marker, and worked as an instructor in electricity at Kaiapoi Technical Classes.

In 1908 Alban moved to Sydney, Australia, where he made early experiments in wireless devices, and decided he would go on to experiment with remote control flight, both vessels (dirigibles, cars, ships) and devices (marine and aerial torpedoes). In 1909 he moved to England, where he was registered new member of the Aero Club of the UK, and in 1910 demonstrated a wireless motor launch at Dagenham Lake, Essex. In the same 1910, he demonstrated a wireless directed airship (dirigible) and a marine torpedo. In 1912 Alban was back in Australia and New Zealand, where he demonstrated his wireless dirigible. In 1914 on his way to London via Australia, he again demonstrated his dirigible. With the outbreak of WWI in 1914 Alban entered British Army, initially at Royal Navy as Lieutenant and retired in 1918 as a Honorary Captain of Royal Air Force.

In 1916, Roberts created a resonator that could operate a model aircraft with sound, and in 1920 he operated a driverless car with a whistle. Again in 1920, he also took a turn to the whimsical when he demonstrated a synesthesia machine that translated the tones of the human voice into different colors. In the 1920s he devised a few automata in human form and demonstrated his robots several times on the streets of London, as well as on magician Jasper Maskelyne’s Show at St George’s Hall in London and on Circus Busch.

An article for Alban Roberts from Popular Science magazine, April 1929, p. 69
An article for Alban J. Roberts (dubbed Captain Alan Roberts) from Popular Science magazine, April 1929, page 69

Roberts was a holder of quite a few patents in the UK, France, USA, Canada, and Australia, e.g.: Improvements in and relating to the Amplification of Wireless Signals (UK pat. Nr. 191510272 from 1916), Improvements in and relating to Telegraphic and like Receiving Devices (UK pat. Nr. 191517321 from 1916), Improvements in or relating to steam engine governors (UK pat. Nr. 191517321 from 1922), Improvements in sound recording (UK pat. Nr. 325569 from 1928), Illumination device for advertising and spectacular purposes (US pat. Nr. 1769311 from 1930), Improvements in silk screen printing apparatus (UK pat. Nr. 567896 from 1944), etc. In 1938 he became a Director of Visular Directions Ltd, a new company in London.

On 27 November 1903, Alban Roberts married in Patea, New Zealand, to Ada Howitt (1877-1960), the second daughter of William Howitt (1840-1920), one of the most esteemed local residents, who arrived from Scotland in 1861. Alban married a second time in 1942 to Honor Mary Trevithick (1896–1975). The remarkable inventor Alban Roberts died on 17 December 1950, in Hampstead, London, England, at the age of 70, and was buried in Camden, London.