great robots & toys
from the space age

Robot Mania

robot mania

Growing Up in the Space Age

"Hope your holidays R-1-derful."
R-1 from Rocket USA.

by Gord Wilson (This article was originally slated for Model Toy and Collector magazine, which went out of print before it could appear).

I remember the November day in 1963 that a huge box arrived from a department store downtown. I was nine years old. The brown-suited delivery man set it down in the living room, much to my mom’s chagrin, foiling her plan to hide the box away until the holidays. Christmas morning confirmed my best hope as I eagerly tore the wrapping off to reveal the outlandish, three foot tall, green and gold dream of every space-minded kid in 1963: ‘Your Friend From the Moon,” Big Loo by Marx.

L: This isn't me getting Big Loo for Christmas; it's Paul Reinoehl from his website. I don't have a picture of me at that happy moment, but Paul has the same expression of happy amazement that I did. It's the secret fraternity of all Big Loo owners. Link to Paul's site at spookshows .com.
Mac, the first robot I ever made. Being made of cardboard boxes and a carpet sweeper, he fell over a lot. His first upgrade was to wooden legs on roller skates (one leg is shown in the background). Then he didn't fall over as much.

Big Loo dutifully took his place among my line-up of robots and space toys. Great as he was, I couldn’t say he was my favorite robot. But consider the contenders for that title:1961 had brought Robot Commando by Ideal. Although the voice command remote control malfunctioned the day after Christmas, he still hurled balls, shot missiles out of his head and crawled across the floor with his eyes rolling in crazy, dizzy spirals. The big blue robot performed guard duty for Ideal’s Astro Base and Deluxe Reading’s Operation X-500 Command Center, both from 1960, even though he was all out of proportion to the red plastic spaceports.

L: Robot Commando by Ideal.  R: Smoking Spaceman on a European robot book. His distinctive barber pole top lamp is not shown.

My parent’s favorite robot was the gray tin Yonezawa/ Linemar Smoking Spaceman, which from an early age I found unnerving. I’d shut the lights off, jump into bed, and watch his eerie red eyes shining in the dark, the spectrum changing on his barber pole top dome, smell the pungent, wafting smoke from his mouth grille, hear his mechanical clanking, walking sound. Probably my favorite was the shining white metal Chief Robot Man, if only because my sister gave him to me. He also seemed the most robotic. He’d stop, flash his eyes and top dome while turning his head with a metallic, grinding sound, and I never tired of his mysterious “bump’n’go” action.

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

Law One:    A robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.

Law Two:    A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Law Three:    A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

It never occurred to me to have the robots fight. They shared a peaceful world with the dinosaurs in my toy box. The only bruises they sustained came when a neighbor kid one day declared war and smashed them together. Long before I learned Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, however, my robot family had heroic and helpful role models in Rosey on The Jetsons and Astroboy, both arriving on TV shortly before Big Loo. These shows were part of the emerging space awareness engendered after the Russians launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, and America quickly followed with Explorer 1 in 1958. President Kennedy only increased robot mania when he called for America to support the burgeoning space program, and toy makers rose to the occasion, with an eye-popping array of science-fiction themed toys and games.

L: Chief Robot Man. C: Astro Base by Ideal. This was an incomplete set being sold through eBay. What's missing is the moon car. After the astronaut was lowered by a crane into the moon car from the side of the Base, the car could be driven from the Base by remote control. Whichever direction the car's antenna pointed was the direction the car would go. An astounding creation from Ideal toys.
R: Smoking Spaceman. Yonezawa's oft-copied design became a robot icon.

My robot force guarded its own little model of Cape Canaveral and all the science-fiction toys my allowance could buy. Remote controlled Mr. Mercury stood watch by Marx’s Mystery Space Ship, a yellow plastic gyroscope which could be cranked up to “hover” on its platform or balance on a string. The Space Ranger Orbiting Space Ship, another Marx creation, whipped around on a pole while the propeller-driven ship swooped and dove, maneuvering to rescue tiny astronauts trapped on the lunar surface.

L: Mr. Mercury. This gold version was for sale at a toy show. R: Marx's Mystery Space Ship was really a large gyro you wound up with a crank. It could balance on a  string and do other amazing feats.

Like so many other junior astronauts of the era, every night I’d retreat to my bedroom and its science-fiction world of progress and peace. But the harmony, alas, was not to last, and my next act was one for which robot collectors may feel I should do penance. To my young mind, the insides of my robots seemed more fascinating than the outsides, and I took them apart. The parts found their way into the home-built robots I daily tried to construct, none of which matched the ingenuity of the originals.

The few tin toys that remained in my collection survived because my mom hid them away. Even in those halcyon years when each new Sears toy catalog brought fresh worlds of enchantment, she sensed that the days of the great robots were numbered. Over the years I have begun collecting robots again, but I will never forget what my “friend from the moon,” and the other metal and plastic inhabitants of that science-fiction wonderland meant to a nine year old kid growing up in the space age. © copyright Gord Wilson.

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