The BBC has long been known as a science fiction pioneer, thanks to shows like Quatermass and Doctor Who. But long before either of those things existed, the BBC was already breaking ground: On Feb. 11, 1938, the Beeb showed a television production of R.U.R., the play that gave us the word “robot.”
R.U.R. stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, and it’s a play by Karel Capek. (I just recently picked up a translated version of it in paperback, in fact.) In the play, “robots” are artificial humans created in a factory, although the “robots” are largely biological and have normal circulatory systems and other organs. These creatures are seen as appliances, until they rebel—giving us the first template for the “robot uprising” in pop culture.
The stage play was originally panned by the New York Times, but as Smithsonian Magazine notes, it came to be championed by intellectuals, including Carl Sandburg (who wrote to the Times to defend it.) And just two years after the BBC came into existence, the Corporation mounted a production of R.U.R., which the Radio Times advertised as “a play that should lend itself very well indeed to television from the point of view of effects.”
Sadly, no recordings exist—and although the image above is often posted online as coming from the BBC production, I’m not 100 percent sure that’s the case.