Retrotechtacular: Voice Controlled Robot from 1961

We like to think that all these new voice-controlled gadgets like our cell phones, Google Home, Amazon Echo, and all that is the pinnacle of new technology. Enabled by the latest deep learning algorithms, voice-controlled hardware was the stuff of science fiction back in the 1961s, right? Not really. Turns out in around 1960, Ideal sold Robot Commando, a kid’s toy robot that featured voice control.

Well, sort of. If you look at the ad in the video below, you’ll see that a kid is causing the robot to move and fire missiles by issuing commands into a microphone. How did some toy company pull this off in 1961?

Watch the video below carefully. The eyes are on their own motor and just move on their own. The drive train and the missile launchers are subject to the voice control. If you can’t get the scale from the video, the robot stood an impressive 19 inches tall.

The remote has a rotary switch (marked “arrow knob” in the instruction booklet) and a thick cable (control wire) coming out of it and connecting to the robot. Turns out the wire isn’t a wire at all. It was a Bowden cable. This is the original kind of Bowden cable like you find on a bicycle, not a 3D printing feed mechanism.

Moving the control pulls the Bowden cable and engages different mechanisms inside the robot. You can see the mechanism if you look at the robot’s patent. The robot also had the 3 D cell batteries inside of it, so there was no battery in the remote.

There was also, interestingly, no microphone. Instead, there was a metal contact that the air pressure from your breath would close to power up the robot’s motors. You’ll notice a “control bar” just under the faux microphone. In the on position, the first breath into the mic will close the contact. It will remain closed until you push the bar to the off position. So issuing multiple voice commands also requires manipulating that control bar between each command.

If you read the robot’s instructions and troubleshooting guide, you’ll see that you are supposed to blow out the first letter as in “FFFForward!” to get the air pressure required.

Collectible

There’s quite a collector community for these robots and the price of one in working order can be quite high. Apparently, there is a squeaker mechanism that made a unique sound using a latex rubber ball. Over the years, these harden, but they can be replaced as you can see in the video, below.

You’ll notice in the video, the voice command is just a single puff of air about 10 seconds in. Once activated, you don’t have to do anything else as long as the control rod stays on.

Hack

Sure, it is a hack. It isn’t real voice control at all. But in 1961, if you were ten years old, it sure seemed as cool as an Amazon Echo does today.

The toy, by the way, was a product of Marvin Glass’ company, Marvin Glass and Associates. This is the same outfit that made Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Mystery Date, Operation, Time Bomb, and Lite Brite, among others. Glass was, apparently, more the marketing muscle, so not all of these toys came from the same actual engineers, but it is still impressive that one company turned out so many iconic toys.

To us, though, it seems like an object lesson in simplifying engineering. If you were building Robot Commando today, you’d load it down with a Raspberry Pi running Tensor Flow to do voice recognition and there would be a half-dozen servo motors and at least one other motor for the drive train. All of which, Glass’ team showed us, is completely unnecessary.

15 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Voice Controlled Robot from 1961

  1. “To us, though, it seems like an object lesson in simplifying engineering. If you were building Robot Commando today, you’d load it down with a Raspberry Pi running Tensor Flow to do voice recognition and there would be a half-dozen servo motors and at least one other motor for the drive train. All of which, Glass’ team showed us, is completely unnecessary.”

    I, uh, no, THEY could’ve done it with a 555!
    B^)

  2. In the mid ’70s, I saw a demo of a toy car that responded to voice commands. Everyone in the room was amazed, until it was explained.
    The car had a four position mechanical control system that would turn right, go straight, turn left, and stop. (maybe some provision for reverse). Each sound it detected would advance the control one step. During the demo, the operator would say the correct number of words to get the desired action. So, if it was stopped, he would say something like “go straight”, if it was turning left, he would just say “forward” or “straight”.
    When the toy actually hit the market, I think it had a remote with a mechanical clicker in it.

    1. I had one of those cars. The microphone was mounted on a long spring and it did, indeed, have an extremely loud mechanical clicker for the control. I don’t think it was marketed as being voice controlled when I got it.

  3. “Simplicity doesn’t mean backwardness” – A. Yakovlev

    Quite the opposite of backwardness, I would say. Simplicity means real understanding of the problem, and its efficient solution. Elegance.

  4. In the late ‘50s, I had an electric train that was “voice controlled”. It was another pressure controlled “microphone” and you were instructed to say, “stoP” and “SStart” to get it to run.

    Don’t remember much about it because it was boring.

  5. My brother and I had one of those robots as kids. It was a ton of fun at the time. We did realize after awhile that all you had to do was blow in it to activate it and the control was just a cable, but that made it like a secret code to fool our younger brothers. Too bad we played with it until it wore out and was disassembled to see how it worked like all our toys. At least then we were young enough to play with it BEFORE taking it apart.

  6. “If you were building Robot Commando today, you’d load it down with a Raspberry Pi running Tensor Flow to do voice recognition and there would be a half-dozen servo motors and at least one other motor for the drive train. All of which, Glass’ team showed us, is completely unnecessary.”

    Well, this product has no voice control, so at least the Arduino/TensorFlow part WOULD actually be necessary?

    1. I think you missed my point. I’m not saying the way the robot “recognized speech” was equivalent to Tensor Flow-based voice control. I am saying that for the requirement, it was probably just as good. Do you think the boy in that commercial (wonder where he is now?) gave a fig if the robot was processing his voice or not? He wanted the experience of doing it and the fact that we could have yelled eggplant into the mic didn’t matter — he wasn’t going to do that.

      Think about, say, Disney’s Mission Space ride. Would I rather actually go to Mars? Yeah. But I can’t afford that. But I can afford a couple of trips on that ride and — honestly — for my purposes, that’s way more practical and pretty much as good.

  7. I remember in the early 90s my brother had a voice controlled tow truck, no idea how it worked as I was told NOT to take it apart and when my brother outgrew it, it went to our younger cousins so I never got the chance to do a proper teardown on it, but I remember it having a button you had to press and then you could give it a command, like “Let’s move it now” would make the lights and siren go and it’d move forward, another command would make the lights flash, etc.. I remember it having a cassette with it that had instructions on it, and it would respond to the commands on the cassette. One side of the cassette was in French, and I remember playing the French side to see if the truck would respond, but it didn’t if I remember correctly. I think it was from Buddy L but I don’t remember the name of the toy itself.

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