June 1955 Popular Electronics
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Carl Kohler has done it again with his mini techno-drama entitled, "R/C Frankie." The story and Kohler's trademark illustrations appeared in a 1955 issue of Popular Electronics magazine. When Popular Electronics first began publication in 1954, it devoted major column space to the topics of amateur radio, home buildable electronic gadgets, stereo hi-fi recording and playback, and radio controlled modeling. Here he got a twofer by hitting on R/C and home brew projects. R/C Frankie was an early conceptual model of the kinds of incredible human-like robots being manufactured today. It was rather crude in comparison with escapement control of movement and operation on the interference prone 27 MHz Citizens Band, the latter of which might have been the root of Frankie's ultimate demise. You'll get a kick out of the dialog between the self-proclaimed "electronic geniuses" and "the wife" (aka "friend wife) and, of course, the ending.
"What is that ... that Thing ?"
By Carl Kohler
"Great saints in the morning!" gasped the wife, her eyes bright with horror.
I smiled a tolerant smile and leaned nonchalantly against my masterpiece. We electronic geniuses have to take the emotional tides of the laity in stride. There are those in my neighborhood who claim that my knowledge of radio could be stuffed in a transistor and still leave room for a ton of silicon; but I prefer to think of myself as a valiant pioneer, slashing new trails in the wilderness of electrical achievement.
"Jazzy, eh!" I chuckled, tapping the just-completed robot with a screwdriver. "You're gazing upon the greatest little gizmo ever to be welded, soldered, and bolted together. Frankie, here, will make us the envy of the ..."
"Frankie?" her voice teetered on a hysterical note.
"Yes," I simpered modestly, "Frankie - short for Frankenstein. Pretty appropriate, huh ?"
She stared at the robot with open distaste.
"B-but what is it ?"
"A metal-alloy robot powered by electric motor and operated by radio control," I chanted factually. "Frankie stands exactly five feet tall, moves on three wheels, one of which acts as directional-guider."
"What's that ?" she indicated the antenna.
"Pickup aid for Frankie's receiver - which receiver consists of superregenerative detector, two stages of audio amplification, and two relay stages ... operating on the Citizens Band at 27.255 mc. Signals are sent by a crystal-controlled transmitter unit."
"How's that again ?"
"You heard me," I said curtly.
"Why did you paint that awful face on the Thing ?"
"It's bound to tip over ..."
"Please don't refer to Frankie as 'the Thing'," I asked with quiet dignity. "He's going to he a very important member of our family. You want to hurt his feelings ?"
"It ... has ... feelings, too ?" Disbelief shone across her face. "Who're you kidding, Buster! You talk as though the darn thing was alive!"
I jabbed the start button on the control-unit. Frankie rolled toward her on silent rubber wheels. I jabbed stop.
"Yeep!" screeched the wife, nimbly leaping atop the workbench. "Did you see it! Did you see it move! It moved!"
"Natch," I replied calmly. "That's what Frankie's built to do - move around. Think of all the heavy carrying tasks he'll serve!" Enthusiastically, I patted the rack welded into his body. "Old Frankie here will see to it that we suffer no more tired arms and aching backs from carting trash out to the alley, lugging heavy baskets of wet-wash out to the clothes-lines ..."
"Hey!" she chirped, climbing off the workbench, "can he push a lawnmower ?"
I blushed and lowered my eyes sheepishly.
"What do you think I invented him for?"
Five minutes later we gathered on the backyard lawn for a trial run. I tied the lawnmower securely to Frankie's rack and stepped back. "Ready," I intoned solemnly. A touch on the start button, again, and the robot rolled forward smoothly, the mower clattering industriously before it - a nicely cropped wake of lawn behind both. I dropped into a chair and sprawled there comfortably, watching with immense satisfaction.
"What is that ... THING ?"
"He's almost to the edge of the lawn! Watch out he doesn't go through the petunias" urged the wife nervously. Her eyes followed Frankie's progress anxiously.
"Relax," I advised. Methodically, I jobbed the left button. Frankie turned sharply, his motor whirring faintly. When he reached the edge of the lawn again, I simply repeated the control and he obeyed instantly. "See what I mean?" I said, trying to keep the triumph out of my voice. "Simply a matter of getting timing right."
"It's amazing!" she breathed. "But how do you keep him from going over the same ground every time?"
I quickly jabbed the left button twice and Frankie moved slightly to the left of his course, straightening out upon the second touch upon the button.
"Terrific!" babbled the wife.
"Complex escapement," I murmured evenly. "Took a lot of thought. I believe in being thorough, you know."
"Yes, I know."
I searched her face for a sign of sarcasm, but found none. Her attention was glued to Frankie, who was shoving the mower accurately around the yard. I showed her how to operate him and lay back with my hands behind my head, giving myself up to analytical thought concerning other possible chores Frankie might take over. Life was definitely going to be a brighter experience.
"Hey! Hey!" cried the wife in alarm, jabbing the buttons on the control-unit case. "Hey, the dang thing's acting crazy!"
I snapped out of my reverie to see Frankie whirling madly.
"Stop punching all those buttons! Here, give me the -"
Without warning Frankie straightened out and headed for the bottom of the garden. I touched the stop button. Frankie picked up speed, his motor buzzing furiously. I bit my lip and calmly forced myself to try the right button. Frankie bounced over the brick border and plowed through the tomato plants without altering course.
"Do something!" yelled the wife.
Frantically, I began jabbing all the buttons. Frankie hit a wheelbarrow, ricocheted - lumbered off again, ,tomato vines flying wildly behind him.
"It must be the receiver!" I decided aloud. "Something's gone wrong with his receiver!"
Frankie crashed through the garden gate in an explosion of splintered wood and disappeared into the yard across the alley. A moment later, a woman's high, prolonged scream ripped through the quiet afternoon.
In the center of the pool - sat Frankie draped with vines.
The wife and I stared at each other in horror.
"Y - you've got to stop that t - thing!"
"Come on!" I shouted, leaping to my feet. "It's bound to tip over or come to a stop soon, We've got to retrieve it before the whole neighborhood -"
To the steady, terrified screams across the alley was now added a yowling cat, the enraged barking of a dog, and the rising voice of a shaven man expressing his fright in colorful, if hardly proper, language.
Frankie's trail was easy to follow. A close-cropped swath of flowers, plants and broken trellis frames led me through the Johnsons' yard. Mr. Johnson burst out of his garage, a shotgun in his hands. Mrs. Johnson sat on an overturned lawn-swing, crying hysterically. I doubled my gait.
Out on the next avenue, people streamed from their houses and gathered in little knots along the sidewalk. I caught bits of conversation as I streaked past.
"... came rumbling out of Johnson's ..."
"... went down that way ... hit the mailbox ... hurtled across the street ... made that car climb right up ..."
Several fellows, bearing rakes, hoes, and other improvised weapons, passed my lagging trot. The leader carried a thick coil of rope. When they suddenly turned into the next yard, I followed, noting my mower - it's shaft broken - lying beside a concrete post.
In the rear, a sizable crowd was gathering around a small pool. In the center of the pool - draped with vines, part of a clothesline still bearing clothes and surrounded by dead goldfish floating belly up - sat Frankie, his painted face leering innocently into space.
I listened to the comment around me.
"... might be from a flying saucer ..."
"... hasn't moved an inch since it hit the water ..."
Shorted out, I decided, looking at the electrocuted fish.
A moment later the police arrived and began questioning various onlookers. Regretfully, I began easing my way out of the excited crowd. Suddenly, the wife appeared beside me.
"You going to claim ownership?"
Mentally, I computed Frankie's intrinsic worth against a dozen probable lawsuits. "Noooooooo," I whispered. "But he makes a dandy pool decoration, doesn't he!" I began guiding her, by the arm, firmly toward home.
"Guess this puts a crimp in that crazy electrical hobby that's been keeping you up nights, eh?" she asked shrewdly.
"Ummmmmm," I murmured, my eyes clouded with thought.
"Now, don't tell me you're planning to start the whole nonsense all over again!" she said, alarmed. "Because if you think for one minute I'm going to put up with -"
"How would you like an entire intercom system throughout the house ?" I suggested. "And photoelectric-controlled doors? And maybe a hi-fi setup distributed through the whole place, so when you break a beam, the music follows you from room to room! Superb idea, eh?"
"No more robots? Promise?"
I turned and had one last look at the milling throng around Frankie. They were calming down.
"Well, not for a while anyway," I agreed.
Posted August 28, 2019