Robots and similar mechanical creations have been a part of movies since the early days of motion picture history. The actual term ‘robot’ was first used in the 1920s in a theatrical play called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by playwright Karel Capek. ‘Robot’ was derived from the Czech word ‘robota’ meaning work or forced labor.

Prior to the word ‘robot’ becoming part of modern language, the term ‘automaton’ was used to describe machines with a human-like appearance. Motion pictures of varying types started coming into existence in the 1880s and 1890s and automatons did appear in early films such as L’Ève Future (1896) and The Master Mystery (1920).

And automatons are still a subject in movies today. The novel behind the 2011 movie Hugo was inspired by the story of the 18th century Maillardet Automaton, which actually exists and is currently on exhibit at the The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

C-3PO and R2-D2: Star Wars science exhibit, Discovery Science Center
C-3PO and R2-D2: Star Wars Science exhibit,
Discovery Science Center, Santa Ana, CA

But the first major character known as a ‘robot’ from the early days of film is Robot Maria from the silent movie Metropolis, released in 1927 and directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang.

The next major cinematic leap in robot popularity occurred with the appearance of Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet in 1956.

But probably the most beloved robot characters in motion picture history are C-3PO and R2-D2, who made their debut appearance in the first Star Wars film in 1977.

 
 
Forbidden Planet

Definitions

There are a variety of words that have been used over time in reference to robots. Definitions will vary from person to person and at times specific terms will be used interchangeably without regard to the actual definition.

The following is a list of our technical definitions for each of the terms along with examples of movies in which they appear.
 

Robot: A mobile or maneuverable mechanical-electronic machine that operates automatically based on a series of programmed rules, functions and commands. Robots with A.I. (artificial intelligence) have advanced decision-making and logic abilities, sometimes bordering or even exceeding the cognitive level of animals or humans. (see Short Circuit)

Android: A robot with a human-like appearance. (see Blade Runner)

Droid: A shortened version of the word android that was popularized by George Lucas in the Star Wars films. Over time it has become a general nickname for robots. Lucasfilm Ltd. holds a trademark for the word ‘droid’. (see Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope)

Intelligent Computers: It is open to debate as to whether an artificially intelligent computer can be considered a robot. By all appearances they have the same abilities as a robot with the exception of a lack of movement by the machine body. (see 2001: A Space Odyssey)
For the purposes of this website, intelligent computers are considered robots.

Automaton: The precursor to the modern robot (pre-1920s). A mechanical object with a human-like appearance that operates in a manner similar to a clock or music box. (see Hugo)
For the purposes of this website, automatons are considered robots.

Cyborg: Biological beings with robotic technology integrated in the original organic body. RoboCop is a cyborg (a human core with robotic components) but The Terminator, which is sometimes referred to as a cyborg, is actually a robot (a robot core with organic components).
For the purposes of this website, cyborgs are not considered robots.