Capek, Karel

Karel Capek   (“Mummy, where do robots come from?”)

 “Can you imagine the silence if everyone only said what he knows!” (K. ÄŒapek)

The Czech writer Karel Capek (pronounced TCHAH-pek) introduced and popularized the word robot. Capek was born on January 9, 1890, in Malé Svatonovice in Northeastern Bohemia  in what today is known as the Czech Republic. He was the third child of Antonin Capek, a medical doctor, and Bozena Capkova. Karel always had a close relationship with his older brother Josef who was a painter, novelist and dramatist.

After high school, from which he graduated with an all “A”s list, he attended the CharlesUniversity in Prague to read philosophy. His second year was spent at the FriedrichWilhelmUniversity in Berlin and part of his third year was spent at the Sorbonne in Paris. After some traveling around France, Capek spent another three years at the CharlesUniversity in Prague, where in 1915 he graduated as a Master of Philosophy.

From an early age Capek had a strong patriotic feeling and in 1917 he became, together with his brother Josef, editor of the cultural section of the Narodni listy (the National paper). They also started a new satirical weekly Nebojsa (the Unafraid). Three years later the two brothers resigned in protest from the Narodni listy when they disagreed with the paper’s political direction.

Rossum’s Universal Robots

In 1921 Capek published his first major work, Rossum’s Universal Robots, a satirical three-act fantasy play in which robots replace men as workers. Obviously in Capek’s time there was no concept of genetic engineering and Capek’s robots (he always spelled the word Robot with a capital as if it were a separate race) were biological machines that could experience pain and which were assembled in a factory  rather than being grown or born. Today we might have called them androids.

The play R.U.R. was received quite well and after being translated into English, it also became a success in Europe and the United States. A young Spencer Tracy played one of the robots in the American version of the play.

The word robot comes from the Czech word  “robota” (drudgery) and “robotnik” (serf). Although Karel Capek is often credited with coining this new word, in a letter he wrote in reference to an article in the Oxford English Dictionary etymology, he named his brother Josef as the person who had suggested the word. The new word became quite popular and soon replaced the older word “automaton”.

“Young Rossum invented a worker with the minimum amount of requirements. He had to simplify him. He rejected everything that did not contribute directly to the progress of work. He rejected everything that makes man more expensive. In fact, he rejected man and made the Robot. My dear Miss Glory, the Robots are not people. Mechanically they are more perfect than we are, they have an enormously developed intelligence, but they have no soul. Have you ever seen what a Robot looks inside?”  (from R.U.R., 1920, transl. by Paul Selver)

Capek was a prolific writer and produced many books and plays, including fairy tales, detective stories and a series of travelogues, following his extensive travels through France, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and England. In 1922 he met Thomáš Garrique Masaryk, a Czech patriot who later became the first president of Czechoslovakia. His interviews with Masaryk were published in a series of books: Hovory s TGM (Talks with Masaryk), Nablizku TGM (nearby TGM) and others. Masaryk also became a welcome guest at Capek’s famous Friday get-togethers, where the local intelligentia found a place to meet and discuss the political developments and other important issues of their time. These Friday parties would continue till his death.

In 1925 Capek became the chairman of the Czechoslovakian PENclub (Poets’, Essayists’ and Novelists’ club). In 1936 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Not afraid to speak his mind and an ardent critic of dictatorship and totalitarianism, the looming threat of Nazism in neighboring Germany filled Capek with worry and he used every available avenue to expose this threat to humankind at large and to his beloved Czechoslovakia in particular. Following the invasion of Austria in March 1938, he tried to persuade the Western world to recognize the threat of Hitler’s expansionism, but to no avail. When France and England signed the Munich Agreement with Germany (September 30, 1938) to hand over the Czech border regions to Germany in exchange for not invading the rest of Czechoslovakia, Capek realised that war was inevitable. That same day he wrote the Czech writers’ manifest “To the Consciousness of the World”. Being such a critic of the new order resulted in Hitler personally ordering his Gestapo to arrest him the moment the Nazi troops had occupied Prague. Being “public enemy #2” in Czechoslovakia, Capek was offered the possibility of leaving his country to live in England in exile but he would have none of it, even though he suspected that his arrest would be imminent after a German invasion.

In December 1938 he suffered a serious bout of flu resulting in double pneumonia and inflammation of his kidneys. Karel Capek died on December 25, 1938, at his home in Prague.

In March 1939, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Capek’s works were blacklisted and his brother Josef was arrested and sent to a German concentration camp. Josef died in April 1945 in Bergen-Belsen. In September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, signaling the beginning of World War II.


As technology progressed – more specifically computer-technology – and machines increasingly started taking over mundane functions, the concept of robots appealed to people. Could computer-controlled machines take over everything from people? Could these machines think like people? As we sometimes use robotic bodyparts already, how much further can we go?  Could one make a robot that looked like and behaved like a human? With it came the intriguing threat of robots going out-of-control which has been the subject of numerous science fiction books. Could robots take over the world?

Most robot applications today involve applications where the robotic machine takes over mundane repetitive functions. We’re all familiar with the paint and welding industrial robots in the car manufacturing industry. But robots are also used where it is too dangerous or even impossible for man to operate: deep-sea robotic vehicles, robotic space probes exploring distant planets, or even robots investigating terrorist threats and defusing bombs.

Although the industrial robot tends to look like a clever machine, the more a robot starts resembling a human being, the more appeal it tends to have with people. That is why many films have popularized the idea of human-like robots: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), and also more recently Robocop, The Terminator and even Star Wars with its two likable robots R2-D2 and C-3PO.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2008