Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Time Machine: Build Your Own ‘Iron Man’

• September 18, 2012 • 9:20 AM

Robots had a mixed reputation in the early 1930s. They represented the promise of streamlined, modern living that was supposed to be just around the corner. But the robot also symbolized the rise in automation, a source of terrifying insecurity within the U.S. labor market during the Great Depression.

The robot became a tragic symbol among live musicians who were displaced during this time, as recorded music swept into movie theaters. A story about a robot rising up and shooting its inventor even made the rounds in American newspapers in 1932—a story many could believe since technology seemed to be progressing at a stupefying pace. 

The consensus seemed to be it was just a question of when (not if) humanoid robots would become an integral part of modern domestic life. (As Baxter demonstrates, we’re still asking that question.)

While stories of robots “learning” to do fantastical things were common in the 1930s, there were few explanations in the popular press about precisely how robots worked. But the July 1931 issue of Radio-Craft magazine showed amateur inventors and tinkerers how to make their very own humanoid robot.

The magazine included an article about Paul Von Kunits, a radio engineer in New York who had made his own “Iron Man” or “Mr. Radio Robot.” The word robot was little more than a decade old, but already inventive people like Von Kunits were creating novelty robots that could appear to stand up, talk and even fire a gun. It turns out that the story of a sentient— trigger-happy—robot from 1932 was in reality a minor accident involving an inventor in England whose gun went off prematurely, giving him a powder burn during his robot demonstration.

Some of the most famous robots of the 1930s, including Westinghouse’s Elektro at the 1939 New York World’s Fair in New York, were said to respond to the human voice. It’s fascinating to see detailed descriptions in this issue of Radio-Craft of how this response was achieved using 1930s technology. Detailed schematics and descriptions showed how you could manipulate a robot through push-buttons, but also how you might get Iron Man to “react” to different tones of voice as they fed through a microphone.

Mr. Cisin at the controls of the robot (July 1931 Radio-Craft magazine)

The shell of Iron Man was a costume for a medieval knight, which the article assures us was purchased at a reasonable rate. The photograph above lists some of the necessary components, including pulleys (which allowed you to move the robots arms), microphones, neon tubes, motors, amplifiers, and so on. Below is an example of one of the 10 schematics included with the article, showing how to configure the basic electronics of the Iron Man.

Schematic 4a showing how to construct some of the electronics for Iron Man

Much like Elektro, Von Kunits’ Iron Man didn’t have much practical purpose aside from entertaining at fairs or advertising in shops. Elektro did find a second life after WWII when “he” toured appliance stores in the 1950s to hawk dishwashers and refrigerators. In a similar fashion, the Iron Man was leased to a large furniture store on 57th Street in 1931. He spent a month “answering” questions for shoppers and playing music from phonograph records.

While the article insists he became a popular vaudeville star, the Iron Man has been overshadowed in 20th century tech history by more popular robots of the 1930s like Elektro and even Alpha. Show business can be cruel to both man and machine.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.