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Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sport

Phil Chu
Phil Chu
Making software since the 80s

I’ve been to the Armand Hammer museum and SF MOMA a few times, but for the most part, modern art leaves me cold.

So when I found the first fifty pages of Brad Stone’s Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports devoted to Mark Pauline’s exhibitions of large robots wreaking havoc in the name of performance art, I expected the worst. But to my relief, the book moves on to the real action, starting with the Denver Mad Scientists Club, who organized small-scale robot battles for fun at their sci-fi meetings, and ex-ILM engineer Marc Thorpe’s commercialization of the “sport”, with his venture Robot Wars.

In the early Robot Wars competitions, after enduring the sometimes artsy preliminary exhibitions, spectators were rewarded with real metal-grinding, suspense-filled entertainment, and so it is with Mr. Stone’s book. The blow-by-blow accounts of the battles in Robot Wars and its eventual competitors, Battlebots, Robotica and the BBC version of Robot Wars, are vivid and mesmerizing — I can almost see La Machine attempting to ram the whirling dervish, Blender, only to be repelled across the arena, leaving a trail of body, er…machine, parts….

Despite criticism of the violent, albeit machine-on-machine, nature of these spectacles, the robot battles were civilized compared to the legal battles that took place concurrently in the “real” world. Thorpe’s long-running struggle for control over Robot Wars with the litigious Steve Plotnicki of Profile Records set the stage for the birth of Battlebots, probably better known in the US due to it’s presentation on the cable channel Comedy Central. In the meantime, Robot Wars as presented by the BBC has became an even bigger cult phenomenon in the UK.

The boys-and-their-toys aura of the robot battlers and the campy presentation of Battlebots on US television (Playboy centerfolds making sexual innuendoes with nerds) belies the passion behind robot battles. Trey Roski, heir to the Majestic Realty empire in Los Angeles, started Battlebots primarily as a means to continue his avocation while Robot Wars was hung up in court and risked litigation himself despite his father’s business advice. Marc Thorpe created Robot Wars with the intent of securing his financial future, particularly with respect to his case of Parkinson’s disease. But his stubborn refusal to give up creative control over his creation and the ensuing litigation left him with mounting bills, worsening health, and a failed marriage.

Besides the somewhat tenuous connection to Mark Pauline’s SRL performances, the list of participants in the robot battles read’s like a Who’s Who of the hip tech world, for example Will Wright, already a legendary computer game designer (recently, the Sims) when he began participating in Robot Wars, and the founder of Lycos who now has the leisure time and financial resources to build combat robots as a new hobby.

As bonus rounds, Mr. Stone provides a welcome treatment near the end of the book to another two engineering visionaires not directly associated with the commercial robot battles but were influential, nonetheless — Woody Flowers, the colorful professor who presided over the longstanding mechanical engineering student competition that is pretty much MIT’s version of the Superbowl, and Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segue human transportation device, who similarly promoted engineering values among high school students with a cooperative competition called FIRST.

Interestingly, although many robot battle enthusiasts found inspiration from Woody Flowers’ and Dean Kamen’s work, the latter two do not return the favor — they disdain the violent nature of robot combat. However, everyone involved shares the common goal of elevating the status of engineering to that of sports. Given the obsession of Thorpe, Roski, and all those who gave up their day jobs to build the ultimate robot warriors, it’s not just a sport, but a way of life. It’s a movement. It’s art (witness the robot Andyroid, with a freakish Big-Boy like figure wheeling around). And it’s machines beating the crap out of each other. Get me a beer. Hoorah!