Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
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Inventing Roboti

Karel Čapek and his brother Josef collaborated as writers on many projects, including The Insect Play, published in 1921. In addition to his brief but substantive contribution to R.U.R. as related below, he did the cover design for the 1920 edition, and multiple subsequent editions of R.U.R; he is also cited in the 1920 edition as an editor.

“The Brothers Čapek” by Josef Čapek
 Josef ​Čapek
 “The Brothers Čapek”

For Rossum’s Universal Robots, Josef’s only credited contribution to the textual substance of R.U.R. was to suggest the word “robot” to describe the organic, but artificially made, workers. An account of this moment appears in a December 24, 1933 article “O Slove Robot” (“On the Robot Word”) in the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny.

The author of the play RUR did not, in fact, invent that word, he merely ushered it into existence. It was like this: the idea for the play came to said author in a single, unexpected moment. And while it was still fresh he rushed immediately to his brother Josef, a painter, who was just standing by the easel, vigorously painting at a canvas.

“Listen, Josef,” the author began, “I think I have an idea for a play.”

“What kind of?” the painter mumbled (he really did mumble, because at the moment he was holding a brush in his mouth).

The author told him as concisely as he could.

“Then write it,” the painter said, without taking the brush from his mouth or stopping to work on the canvas. His indifference was quite insulting.

“But,” the author said, “I don’t know what to call those artificial workers. I could call them Laboři, but that strikes me as a bit literal.”

“Then call them Roboti,” the painter muttered, brush in mouth, and carried on painting. So it happened . . .  

Josef Čapek’s drawing of Karel Čapek as an R.U.R. robot, 1921
 Josef Čapek
 Drawing of Karel Čapek as an R.U.R. robot, 1921

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