Rotwang’’s Maschinenmensch (Machine-Man)

Rotwang’s Machine-Man is the most magical technology seen in the film. This is understandable since there the only common precedent available to the audience were stories of golems and imps, soulless and wicked servants out to wreck havoc at their master’s bidding. Despite this imp paradigm, many of the interfaces around the Machine-Man are worthy of note.

Rotwang reveals the Machine-Man.

When Rotwang first reveals the Machine-Man to Joh, he does so with a dramatic yank of a curtain to the side. There sits the automaton, in a throne before a catwalk. In response to the curtain’s opening, the catwalk gradually illuminates. Did the Man-Machine turn the lights on? Was it a “curtain switch?” The movie gives no clues, but the lesson is clear. Light signals power, and the Machine-Man is imbued with a lot of it.

The Machine-Woman awaits Rotwang’s instructions.

The Machine-Man as Joh meets it is entirely machine in appearance. (Beautifully designed by Walter Schulze-Mittendorff. This piece of sci-fi is so iconic and seminal that it warrants its own Wikipedia page.) At Joh’’s instruction, Rotwang gives the Machine-Man the outward likeness of Maria. How he is actually able to accomplishing this is vague, but note that as he twists up the power, more and more bars illuminate at the foot of the table. An early establishment that, as power increases, so does light.

Rotwang powers the transformation table.

This “light = power” theme is reinforced a number of times throughout this sequence.

Some machine glows as Rotwang turns it on.

With a switch the transformation begins.

Rotwang increases the power to the transformation table.

What does the tall tank, the arcing sphere, or the large wafer switch do? We don’’t know. But with the flick of a switch, something glows, and even without any sound to tell us, we know that he’’s summoning a great deal of power for what he’s about to do next.

Machine-Maria devises her saboteur’’s scheme.

Machine-Maria looks nearly identical to the real Maria. But in seeking to make the differences clear to the audience, actress Brigitte Helm needed to supply some kind of uncanny valley a century before the term was invented. Her response, which underscores the “evil twin” nature of Machine-Maria, was to adopt sharp, precise movements, an under-the-brow stare, and asymmetry. These simple cues let us know in a few seconds that she is not human and not to be trusted.

On the pyre, Machine-Maria reverts to her original form.

Machine-Maria’s death also underscores its deeply magical roots. When burning on the pillar, Machine-Maria transforms back to her original, machine-like form for little given reason other than her spell has been somehow broken.

Robbie the Robot

Dr. Morbius creates Robbie after having his intellectual capacity doubled by the Krell machines. The robot is a man-sized, highly capable domestic servant receiving orders aurally, and responding as needed with a synthesized voice of his own.

Robbie exits the cockpit of his vehicle.

Robbie invites the men inside.

Robbie first appears steering a special vehicle to pick up the officers. It is specially built for him, accommodating his inability to sit down. From this position, he can wirelessly maneuver the vehicle, and even turn his head around to address passengers.

Robbie fires Adams’’ sidearm.

Despite his having only two wide, flat fingers on each hand, he is able to grasp and manipulate objects as a human would. To demonstrate this, Morbius has him aim and fire Commander Adams’’ weapon at a nearby tree. How he pulled the trigger is something of an unanswered question since his hands are hidden from view as he fires, but he does so all the same. This makes him quite useful as an interface, since he is able to use any of the devices already in the environment. Additionally, should he become unavailable, humans can carry on in his absence.

Alta thanks Robbie for offering to make her a new dress.

Given that he must interact with humans, who have social needs, his stature helps ingratiate him. In one scene Alta wishes to express her gratitude for his promise of a new dress, and she gives him a hug. Though he does not hug back, she still smiles through and after the expression. Had he been less anthropometric, she would have had to express her thanks in some other way that was less pleasant to her.

Robbie warms the coffee for Alta and Farman.

In addition to being physically suited for human interaction, he is quite socially aware and able to anticipate basic human needs. In one scene, as Lt. Farman walks with Alta towards a cold pot of coffee, without having been asked, Robbie reaches down to press a button that warms the coffee by the time the two of them arrive. He also knows to leave immediately afterwards to give the two some privacy.

Despite these human-like qualities, some of his inhuman qualities make him useful, too. He is shown to be incredibly strong. He is tireless. He can synthesize any material he “tastes.”

With eyes behind his head, Robbie shoos a pesky monkey.

He even has “eyes in the back of his head,” or a 360-degree field of vision for surveillance of his surroundings. In one charming scene he combines this observation with small nonlethal lasers to shoo away a pesky monkey trying to steal fruit behind his back.

Morbius shows Robbie’’s “sub-electronic dilemma” when asked to harm a human.

Addressing safety concerns, Robbie is built to obey Asimov’’s first law of robotics. After having his creator instruct him to point a weapon at Adams, and “aim right between the eyes and fire,” Robbie’’s servos begin to click and whir noisily. His dome glows a pinkish-red as blue sparks leap across it. Morbius explains, ““He’’s helpless. Locked in a sub-electronic dilemma between my direct orders and his basic inhibitions against harming rational beings.”” When the command is canceled, the sparks stop immediately and the red fades over a few seconds.

This failsafe seems quite serious, as Dr. Morbius explains that if he were to allow the state to continue, that Robbie would “blow every circuit in his body.” Since the fault of such a state is with the one issuing the command and not Robbie, it seems a strange design. It would be like having your email server shut down because someone is trying to send an email infected with a virus. It would make much more sense for Robbie to simply disregard the instruction and politely explain why.

Piranha dolls


After landing on Tau Ceti, Barbarella is captured by feral children who tie Barbarella to a set of poles and turn a set of robot dolls on her.

The dolls exhibit some crude intelligence. They walk on their own toward Barbarella. Stomoxys (or is it Glossina? It’s tough to tell with these two.) twists a knob on a control panel of four similar, unlabeled knobs, and the dolls’ piranha-toothed mouths begin to crank open and slam shut. They then attack Barbarella, clinging and biting her legs and arms.

Barbarella-062 Barbarella-063

At first the dials seem a strange choice for a killing device, but then you realize that this isn’t mean to be efficient. Rather, the choice of dials for controls fits the childrens’ awful goal. Stop dials are best for setting variables within a range of values. The dolls must have a few variables, like walking speed, biting force, and biting speed, that the horrible children will want to play with as they entertain themselves with this torture.

And of course to “improve” this interface you might want to label the dials so a new user would know what does what, but who would really want to make torture toys more usable?


Floor sweeping robots


To illustrate his capitalist ideology, (a high-tech version of the parable of the broken window) Zorg activates his automatic cleaning robots. To do this, he deliberately crashes a glass to the floor, where a set of robots come scuttling out from beneath his desk and begin cleaning up.

Three of them serve to demarcate the space as a “”robots working”” zone, with tall masts from which red beacon lights warn anyone nearby. In the middle of these three, a sweeper robot gathers the large pieces of glass with broom and dustbin actuators.


Then, a vacuum robot spins above the location to remove the fine pieces of glass.


Finally, a hemispheric robot also comes to sterilize the area, or possibly to just spray a pleasing scent in the air. After they are done, they retreat automatically to the desk, and a new drinking glass rises from a hidden compartment to Zorg’s desktop, filling with water to the accompaniment of a small voice that announces ““water”” and, as a bowl of the stuff also raises, ““fruit.””

As Zorg pulls a cherry from the bowl, the same voice announces somewhat pointlessly, ““a cherry.”” (Perhaps useful if the eater is unfamiliar with basic types of fruit.)



The robots are meant to do their job safely and efficiently, and then put themselves away as quickly as possible. The main “interface” task they have is to keep nearby humans informed and safe. (Did Asimov write a law for vacuum cleaners?) A minor secondary goal might be to distinguish the function of each by their shape. The robots inform observers explicitly with the stanchion robots’ beacon lights and bright red patterns. In addition, the whirring sounds of each robot’s motors and actuators help to reinforce the fact that they are working. If they were completely silent they would be more problematic for people not looking or unable to see. The beacon might be a bit of overkill and distracting to someone at a distance, but since the robots are small enough to be a trip hazard, and Cornelius is in fact less than a meter away at the time of sweeping, I can see why it might be needed in this particular case. That they are each readily distinguishable means it might be easier to intervene or select a particular one for maintenance. So, aside from the faulty logic they’re meant to embody, mostly really well designed.

The main improvement I can imagine is that the system might reduce the trip hazard by unifying these disparate functions in a single device, and then either keeping them stanchion-high or flattening its top out like a step. But then we’d just have invented Roomba five years early.

Extra credit

This isn’t the first floor cleaning robot seen on the silver screen. There was another movie over three decades before that included one, even though it wasn’t what most people would consider sci-fi. Can any of the Make It So readers identify that film in the comments? (I’ll post pics of the answer once someone guesses it.)

Other floor cleaning robots

Yesterday I offered extra credit if a reader could name the first floor sweeping robot in a film in the Make It So survery. Pixel I/O smartly noted that The Jetsons (debut 1962) had one—its autovac. (Thanks to Matt Houghton of for posting the image.)


This is a great catch, but Pixel I/O rightly acknowledged that The Jetsons was not a film, so off by a technicality. Shouts out anyway, as this example was a full three or four years before the film I did have in mind, which was the only-nominally sci-fi comedy The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). Still, I happened to come across it in research and captured it.

In the film, the inventor Rod (Bruce Templeton) tries to impress Jennifer (Doris Day) with this floor-cleaning robot. It only manages to pop out of its door to arc towards a dropped banana peel and through reversed footage, arc right back into its home under the kitchen island.

What’s interesting about these two examples are their similarity. They’re each the size of a small dog. Each has an antenna and two eyes. The antennae speak of the radio-controlled paradigm of the era. Audiences needed to know how they are being controlled, and this shortcut answered the question at a glance. The eyes hint at a need for anthropomorphism, or possibly zoomorphism, for users to understand the thing’s capabilities. We know it can see us and the things around it because of this simple visual affordance.

Yellow circles everywhere


Korben (and his poor neighbor) aren’t the only ones to deal with the yellow circles. Apparently they appear everywhere.

When Right Arm fails to convince the counter staff for Fhloston Paradise that he is Korben Dallas. Knowing that he works for a sociopathic killer, he gets upset. As the doors to gate 18 close behind her, the ticket taker smiles and says, “Sorry, sir, boarding is finished!” and the platform on which she stands lowers her out of sight. At the same time a pane of glass with the familiar two yellow circles rises up. In his frustration, Right Arm shouts, “I don’t believe this!” and pounds the glass(?) around the booth.


Instantly, a whooping warning is heard, and three columns of computer-controlled guns drop from the ceiling, clacking into place as if they were being armed. Two columns are behind him and one directly in front, each with two guns, pointing a total of six automatic weapons at him. Red LEDs blink on the column in front near a camera and a voice sternly warns him, “This is not an exercise. This is a police control. Put your hands in the yellow circles…”

The scene is played for laughs, as an example of an inappropriately harsh reaction to an expression of frustration. But the design of the system is worth noting. The compliance technique is designed to be easy to communicate and comprehend. The recorded voice could have said something like “stand in a spread-eagle position against the glass” but that is too wordy and leaves lots to interpretation. Giving the user very basic signals, i.e. yellow circles, and a very unambiguous task, i.e. putting your hands in the circles, is as clear as it could be. (Though I’m not sure what would happen if you were someone with only one hand, or no hands, or a prosthetic hand.)

The red lights, stern recorded audio, mechanical sounds, and whooping sound all let Right Arm know the gravity of the situation he’s in. Even the fact that they drop and swivel toward him give him the clear signal that if he tried to run, these weapons could track him. The sound appears behind him first, causing him to swivel, where he’s met with the four menacing barrels. He is first disoriented and then cowed.


Sure, I’d really hate to live in such an oppressive police state where expressing frustration in public is met with possible death from a robot, but looking at it purely from the perspective of the signals and instructions, it’s well done.



Gort is one of the most well known film robots from the 1950s. (He predates the most well-known robot, Robbie, by about 5 years.) His silent imperviousness, menacing slowness, and awesome disintegration ray make him an intimidating puzzle to the characters that face him. (“Him?” you may be wondering. The gender is apparent from the original script.) Klaatu explains that Gort was created as part of an interplanetary police force, there to ensure “complete elimination of aggression.” Klaatu explains that upon witnessing violence robots like Gort “act automatically against the aggressor,” though this behavior can be overridden. In this role Gort acts more like an independent character than a computer. Still, he is a robot, and dealings with Gort involve three interfaces: voice control, his visor, and something akin to Aldis lamp Morse code.

Voice Control

Gort emerges when Klaatu is wounded by a nervous and hair-triggered soldier. Gort eliminates the immediate threats with his disintegrator ray and seems intent on killing the tank commander when Klaatu issues a command in an alien language, “Gort! Deglet ovrosco!” Immediately after hearing the instruction Gort remains motionless. Gort obeys this order until Klaatu gives him another signal by a light code, discussed below.

Gort is not just keyed to Klaatu’s voice. When Helen approaches Gort, he begins to attack her. When she speaks the words, “Klaatu barada nikto” (Yes, that Klaatu barada nikto) to Gort, he ceases his attack and carries her into the heart of the spaceship, where she is imprisoned and protected until Gort fetches and revives Klaatu. It is clearly just the words that Gort responds to, and not the speaker. This seems like a pretty big security flaw. Can any criminal issue this command and get off scot-free? Learn the Gortian command for “shoot to kill” and suddenly your protector is your assassin? This brings us, as so many things do in sci-fi, to multifactor authentication. I’ll just leave that there.


Gort’s disintegrator ray emerges from a visor slot on his head. Gort must raise the visor before using the weapon. When armed, a small light illuminates and cyclically scans left and right in the visor space. These two modes, i.e. the visor’s being up and the light, act as increasingly escalated signals to any observers of the seriousness of the situation.

The army intuitively understands the meaning of this signal even having never before experienced it. They all back away in fear, and rightly so. As such the visor acts as a signal of the readiness of a very dangerous weapon.

Aldis signaling

One night Klaatu sneaks from the boarding house back to the spaceship, around which the army has placed guards and a barrier. Klaatu finds a viewing window in the barrier, but Gort is facing away from it. To get Gort’s attention silently, Klaatu uses a flashlight to shine a series of Morse-code-like* signals onto a wall that Gort faces. In response, Gort turns to the source of the light. Klaatu continues to signal Gort directly on his visor. In this way Klaatu reactivates Gort.


This sequence implies that there are a series of channels by which Gort could be signaled, each allowing for a different constraint. Though codes like the Aldis code have a steep learning curve, and might not be recommended for more intermediate users, they clearly have their uses in mission-critical systems that are prone to the chaos of landing on alien worlds.

*It’s not real Morse code since the third “letter” is 8 “dots,” way beyond the maximum 5 defined in Morse.