Posts tagged ‘Robotics’


Robert A.W. Lowndes (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1939.)

Robert A.W. Lowndes (Photo by Jack Robins, Tarrytown, N.Y., 1939.)

Jack Robins

Jack Robins

Guest Post By Jack Robins

I recall many things about Robert W. Lowndes, how soft-spoken he was, how much he enjoyed studying old science fiction stories, and how warm and friendly he was.

I remember one time, when John Michel, Don Wollheim, Lowndes and I were in a bar each drinking something. Lowndes ordered a white wine, I believe it was Sauternes. He took a sip and let the small amount of fluid roll over his tongue to relish the flavor and he held it there for a long while before swallowing. He told me the only way to appreciate wine was to sip it slowly and savor the flavor. I now think that was just rationalization for not having sufficient funds to order a second glass. But at the time I was so impressed by his sophistication that for a long time, the only wines I preferred to drink were white wines and I would try to make the flavor last in my mouth a long time. Many years later, I mentioned this incident to Robert but he said he could not remember it.

Once after a meeting, when we were about to go to our respective homes, Robert surprised me by saying he wanted to go home with me. I was hesitant. My parents had no phone at the time so I could not ask my mother if it would be all right. “I have to,” he told me. “I have no place to sleep tonight.” That did it. I said, “Sure.”

When we got to my home and I explained things to my mother, she accepted Robert and fed us dinner. The apartment was rather small. There was one big bedroom, no privacy. Normally I slept alone on a full sized bed on one side of the bedroom and my father and mother shared the bed on the other side. So that night Robert and I had to sleep in my bed. There was no other room. I slept well but I don’t know how Robert fared. The following morning my mother fed us a good breakfast.

Always, whenever I went to meet with the Futurians, I had to go to Michel’s house, and later on to the apartment they shared. No one had ever come to my house. Now, having a fellow Futurian visit me at my home, sharing my food and even my bed, made me feel good. Worrying about Robert, I asked him did he want to spend another night at my house.

He said, “Absolutely not.” I asked him why. He said, “Isn’t it obvious?” He would not give any details. I did not press him to find out whether it was because of the lack of privacy, the forced sharing of my bed, the single bathroom, or the poverty he observed. But I was glad to have helped him out that one night.

Lowndes used to regale us with quotes from early science fiction stories. He would stand before us and read paragraphs from stories in old magazines from his or Don Wollheim’s collection, and we would groan at what we thought was bad writing. One such story that drove us to loud laughter involved a manlike robot that was the house servant. When providing refreshment, the robot was asked by a visitor to join him in a drink. The robot declined, stating, “The drink affects the delicate enamel of my teeth and once that is gone, the rest soon follows.” This sentence was repeated so many times in the story that I doubt any of us listeners could ever forget it. We thought that the robot was the only thing of merit in the story. It was not made clear whether the robot was referring to the effect of sugar on the teeth and that once the protective enamel was gone, the rest of the teeth soon followed, or whether, as Lowndes believed, considering what the robot was made of, once the enamel was gone, the rest of the robot would also deteriorate and vanish.

In those early days, we were often fond of walking long distances around Flatbush, Brooklyn, finally ending up in an ice cream parlor or candy store for sodas. The basic group included: Wollheim, Michel, Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth and me. Occasionally Dick Wilson would join us. We continued this ritual even after Michel, Wollheim, Kornbluth and Lowndes had decided to room together in the first apartment they jointly rented.

During each of these walks, Kornbluth would relate a shaggy dog story. It was about an unemployed, destitute man who sees an ad in a paper left on a park bench, offering a huge reward for a lost shaggy dog. Just then he sees a huge shaggy dog ambling about and becomes convinced this was the one that was lost. He grabs the dog and endeavors to return it to the owner. Unfortunately, he meets up with many difficult and life-threatening obstacles on the way to returning the dog and finally, his clothes in rags, many cuts and bruises all over his face and body, he rings the doorbell of the dog’s owner. A man, obviously a butler, regards him while sniffing snobbishly and asks what he wanted. “I’ve found your shaggy dog and I’ve come for the reward,” our hero says. The butler looks at it with disdain and says, “It’s not that shaggy,” and slams the door on the man. It was a pointless and unappealing story, but the fun was in inventing the obstacles that faced the hero.

Each time we took the walk, Cyril Kornbluth would tell this story in his deep melodious voice that made each word sound like a pronouncement of doom. At every rendition, Cyril’s imagination would fly through fantastic difficulties that had us laughing despite the morbid character of the story. In Cyril’s inventiveness, the hero might struggle with someone and get a black eye or two, or he might get hit by a truck and end up in the hospital, or something else would happen to him before he could return the dog. Each time he repeated the story it had a different set of obstacles. Cyril’s vivid imagination was impressive.

One day, Kornbluth couldn’t be with us. Robert took over the telling and let his own imagination take rein. His soft, pleasant version was not as predictive of doom as Kornbluth’s, but his imagination was just as effective. I realize now that those storytelling incidents were training for later authorhood.

After the group had obtained the apartment they shared, we would occasionally go to a Chinese restaurant some blocks away and order our evening meal. We were all poor and could not afford anything sumptuous. Imagine a ceramic bowl six or seven inches in diameter, about an inch and a quarter high, filled with such recipes as fried rice or chow mein or chop suey, all for 25¢, including dessert. To us this was the height of extravagance, and during the time we were eating we felt wealthy and that we were eating like the super rich.

One day in late March, during the period when Lowndes was publishing the fanzine Science Fiction Weekly, I urged Robert to put out an April Fool’s issue. He was very reluctant. He depended upon paid subscribers to finance the publishing plus a little money for himself, and he was also beholden to various sources who revealed to him all the latest happenings in the science fiction field that he could publish. If he issued an April Fool’s issue, his subscribers might feel cheated or he might offend the ones who supplied his material. Finally I convinced him that issuing an extra April Fool’s supplement and naming it Science Fiction Weakly would do him no harm and the readers might even appreciate it. The issue he finally prepared was one page, two columns on each side of the page, each column being a single article of about 300 words. I wrote up three humorous articles, taking up three of the columns and someone else wrote the fourth. I don’t know how many of the readers took to the April Fool’s issue, but since Robert was still publishing the paper thereafter, I guess they must have been amused.

To be continued.

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Admiral of the Little Wooden Navies and Dean of the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute

L. Sprague de Camp, left, and Fletcher Pratt, 1941.

L. Sprague de Camp, left, and Fletcher Pratt, 1941.

When I was eleven or twelve I uncritically, but obsessively, read every scrap of science fiction I could put my hands on. This primarily meant every back-number sf magazine I could buy for a nickel (as against the extortionate 25¢ cover price for current issues on a newsstand) in the second-hand magazine store. One of the first of those, I think, was an early Amazing Stories Quarterly, and its principal content was a novel called A Voice Across the Years.

It was, I must say now — though I didn’t realize it at the time — a quite undistinguished story, although an unusual one in two respects. In the story, a couple of human beings from Earth have somehow or other happened to land on a civilized planet far, far away, where they are welcomed by being given wardrobes of new clothing. The garments fit them perfectly, because each one was custom made by a machine that measured every part of them and then cut and stitched fabric to an exact fit.

I had not seen any such voluminous discussion of science-fictional tailoring, or indeed of any kind of haberdashery, in any other story, and I was fascinated. I am afraid that at the time I may have been suffering from the delusion that every marvelous invention I saw described in any story was probably going to become reality before long — after all, that’s what had happened with radio, the airplane, the submarine and many other marvels, hadn’t it? So I thought it likely that before long Macy’s would have these machines in their boys’ department to make my first machine-created pair of knickers. (Please remember that I was then maybe eleven years old.)

The other unusual thing about the story was its by-line. It was signed “by Fletcher Pratt and I.M. Stephens.” I had never seen a joint byline before. I had never heard of collaboration. Did it mean that two different people had somehow written a single story? And if so, how?

However they did it, it sounded sort of unpleasant to me — certainly not like anything I would ever want to do myself.

Continue reading ‘Fletcher Pratt’ »


Isaac Asimov, 1965.

Isaac Asimov, 1965.

All this time Isaac was continuing to write for John CampbellFoundation stories, robot stories, all kinds of stories. Perhaps his biggest hit for John, though, wasn’t exactly a story. It was what came to be called “a non-fact article,” this one a dead-pan scientific report on a compound called “thiotimoline,” which had the curious property of beginning to dissolve before it was added to a solvent.

For a time I was back in the literary-agency business, handling Isaac among most of the other top sf writers in the world. The publishing of science fiction in book form in the U.S. had just begun, and I wanted Isaac to get in on it. The trouble was that Doubleday, the most interesting of the hardcover houses, had decided that they wanted new works, not reprinted serials taken from the pulps. (It was a dumb decision, and later, when they realized what they were missing out on and reversed it they made a fortune out of those old Foundation and robot books.)

But at the time that was policy and I couldn’t argue them out of it. But I happened to know that Startling Stories had asked Isaac to write a short novel for them and then, when he did, rejected it. When I told him what I had in mind, he dragged it out of the dead file and handed it to me. “Fred,” he said, “this is my only copy. Be very careful of it, because if it gets lost, you are no longer my agent.”

That pulled my cork. I think it was the only time in my life that I was really mad at Isaac. I all but threw the manuscript back at him. “Isaac,” I said — well, I think yelled, “we’re talking about grown-up publishing here. You’re the author. You give me a manuscript, I try to get it turned into a book, but I’m not the one who provides the manuscript.” (There may have been a few expletives thrown in here and there.)

Anyway Isaac backed down, we were friends again, and Doubleday was glad to have the book. Isaac had called it “Grow Old Along With Me.” Walter Bradbury, the editor who wrote the contract, called it The Stars, Like Dust, and if I’m not mistaken, it’s still in print today.

If the established New York publishing houses were too proud to pick up reprints from the pulps, the fan-owned semi-pros who had started the whole thing weren’t. What I couldn’t sell to Doubleday or Simon & Schuster I mostly sold to them. Isaac’s robot stories, for instance, went to Martin Greenberg’s Gnome Press. When I handed the manuscript over to Marty, he said, “I don’t have to read this, I’ve already read them all. I’ll write a contract. But I need a title and there isn’t one on the script.”

He was right. No new title occurred to me, but I’d admired the title on an Eando Binder robot story — “I, Robot,” borrowed from the great Robert Graves novel, I, Claudius — and it wouldn’t matter what we put in the contract, because the title could always be changed and titles aren’t copyrightable anyway. So said the contract, and the Binder title just never got changed.

Funny story: Isaac had told me that “his” Three Laws of Robotics were actually given to him by John Campbell — Isaac had just tinkered with the wording. But when the movie people actually made a film called I, Robot, the story that was filmed had nothing to do with Isaac’s actual stories but was something written and published by another writer, and all they used of Isaac’s work was the title and the Three Laws. Neither of which had been his.

In 1948, Isaac got his Ph.D. It is the custom before that degree is granted for the candidate to appear before a sort of jury of people who already have the degree, who question him or her at depth about various details of the particular field of study involved. When Isaac went before the group for his orals, he expected they would make him sweat and they did.. Then, when he was just about ready to flee from the room, the most senior of his questioners said, “Now there is one subject we haven’t touched on, but it may be the most important of all. Mr. Asimov, what are the properties of the compound thiotimoline?”

And Isaac knew he had it made. As he had. Not only the degree, but also a job, teaching biochemistry at Boston University (not to be confused with the famous Catholic school, Boston College) and no one could take it away from him because he had been granted tenure. With his wife Gertrude — Gittel for short — and their two babies, he could now look forward to a comfortable and stress-free life in New England.

He was, however, not quite prepared for superstardom.

Final installments coming up when I write them.

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“Homo artificialis” from Hugo Gernsback’s Science and Invention Magazine, 1924. (Via David Zondy.)

“Homo artificialis” as conceived by Joseph H. Kraus & H. Winfeld Secor in 1924, from Hugo Gernsback’s Science and Invention Magazine. (Via

So I was feeling pretty good, this day a few weeks ago, and I thought it was about time that I got back to the three-times-a-week cardiovascular exercise group I’d been faithfully working out with since around the year 2001. That is going on nine years. It is also, I believe, the principal reason I’m still alive now. Of course, since I’ve been pretty much housebound for most of this year with one confounded thing after another, I couldn’t get there. So I had to start all over again like a rookie.

I made an appointment and got over to the place and had a nice talk with Rose, who is now the head rehab nurse. All went well. We settled on when, where and what, exactly, I would be doing, and then Rose took my vital signs. And then it all fell apart. My heart rate was 41.

This is not a pulse that is compatible with staying alive for very long. So Rose called Adrian Deme, my new primary-care doctor. He told her to get me to an ER for evaluation. And next thing you know, I was in a hospital bed getting ready for a pacemaker.

Actually it wasn’t quite that fast. There were a few little annoyances they had to track down and fix first, but then it was straightforward. A pacemaker implant requires cutting a little hidey-hole into the flesh of your chest just under the collarbone, tucking the little electroshock-emitting gadget in there, with its powerful little battery. Then they run a wire from the gadget to your heart. The wire ends in something like a tiny ordinary wood screw, which the surgeon screws into the flesh of your heart with something like a tiny screwdriver. Since he can’t see through the meat and blood he has to operate this by x-ray. Then, when he gets it well screwed, he closes you up and you’re done.

Before you get to that point, though, they wheel you into the operating room, which you are not overjoyed to discover is really chilly. They keep it that way to discourage germs, and they won’t let you put on a sweater, Then the nurse spreads some soap on your bare chest and scrubs it vigorously. When she gets it the cleanest it has ever been, she spreads a fresh batch of soap on your chest and repeats the process. She does this three times. Then the surgeon steps up and starts to cut.

Were you thinking that might hurt? It doesn’t. You don’t feel any pain. At some time when you weren’t looking the anesthesiologist has put that whole area of your chest to sleep. You do feel that there is somebody doing all kinds of unexpected things down there, and you aren’t at all sure that you care for it. But then that stops and you’re on your way back to your hospital bed, all done.

And the next morning they send you home.