Karel Capek

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Today is the birthday of Czech writer Karel Capek, whose science-fiction play R.U.R. introduced a now-familiar term:

The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, made of synthetic organic matter, called “robots.” Unlike the modern usage of the term, these creatures are closer to the modern idea of cyborgs or even clones, as they can be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans, although that changes, and a hostile robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race.


The play introduced the word robot which displaced older words such as “automaton” or “android” in languages around the world. In an article in Lidové noviny Karel ?apek named his brother Josef as the true inventor of the word. In its original Czech, robota means forced labour of the kind that serfs had to perform on their masters’ lands, and is derived from rab, meaning “slave.”

The name Rossum is an allusion to the Czech word rozum, meaning “reason,” “wisdom,” “intellect” or “common-sense.” It has been suggested that the allusion might be preserved by translating “Rossum” as “Reason,” but only the Majer/Porter version translates the word as “Reason”.

Isaac Asimov, author of the Robot series of books and creator of the Three Laws of Robotics, stated: “Capek’s play is, in my own opinion, a terribly bad one, but it is immortal for that one word. It contributed the word ‘robot’ not only to English but, through English, to all the languages in which science fiction is now written.”

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