Australian researcher and online curator Reuben Hoggett was a pillar of the global robotics and cybernetics knowledge base. He passed away a few days ago.
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It’s been more than 4 years since I first stumbled upon the endlessly fascinating and splendidly dense CyberneticZoo.com, an obscure deep-research catalog of 20th-century robotics and cybernetics. Humbled and intrigued, I pursued its creator, Mr. Reuben Hoggett, who turned into an enthusiastic and willing interviewee for Anthrobotic’s first such post. Conducting the interview and sharing Mr. Hoggett’s work marked a salient, pivotal benchmark for my publication, and I am grateful for the time he shared with me.
I learned just yesterday of Mr. Hoggett’s death, and the news prompted a gravity of professional sentiment…it’s a peculiar kind of grief I’ve not experienced before. While I did not know Mr. Hoggett personally, through the interview process and our occasional correspondence thereafter, he proved a sincere, generous, and thoughtful human being, and I offer my sincerest condolences to his family and friends. For those who were close to him, I hope it provides some comfort to know that part of his legacy is a priceless and incomparable library of robotics and cybernetics knowledge that will serve generations to come.
My interview with Reuben Hoggett, creator of CyberneticZoo.com, is presented below.
-Reno J. Tibke
Chief of Technosnark©®™
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[The following was first published here on May 23rd, 2012.]
Robot Treasure Discovered Online:
An Interview with the Creator of CyberneticZoo.com
I Thought I was into Robots…
Recently, whilst madly searching for the identity of a unknown robot (a failed attempt at robodorky one-upmanship), I perchanced across CyberneticZoo.com. Forty minutes later, while I hadn’t found my robot, I also hadn’t left the site. I’d stumbled into something awesome.
…then I got Owned
I’m very, very interested in robots & cybernetics.
Mechanically. Socially. Historically. I am that dorky guy.
Those 40 minutes of random exploration, however, were humbling. For example, I’m totally hip to the modern HAL and HULC and Panasonic and XOS 2 devices – exoskeletal systems are of particular personal interest, and I’ve followed those and similar projects for years. But before landing at CyberneticZoo.com, I knew nothing about Mizen’s pioneering exoskeleton work at Cornell…
…from the early 1960s!
And it goes on and on like that. As I’ve explored the site, I’ve realized that, in the geektastic ocean of robotics & cybernetics knowledge, I am a well-intentioned child in a rowboat clutching a plastic Optimus Prime, and the person who created this amazing site that I happened upon, he is the captain of a nuclear aircraft carrier that transforms into a giant bipedal freedom fighter.
The site, as an archive of humanoid & otherwise biologically inspired robotics & cybernetics & various related stuff, is the finest I’ve seen. Machines you’ve never heard of, conceptual and mechanical precedent, detailed histories of the broad shoulders holding up today’s most advanced projects – all there to be discovered. The site isn’t pretty, but the job really, really gets done.
Who, how, and why. I wanted to know.
Anthrobotic Presents Mr. Reuben Hoggett
This 55 year-old Australian IT worker, driven to share his research, and, unfortunately, pressed by his own mortality, has assembled an unmatched online resource.
Kindly, he granted Anthrobotic an interview.
Here is the man, and here’s what he says:
Anthrobotic: Hello, Mr. Hoggett. Let’s jump right in: what exactly is Cyberneticzoo.com?
Reuben Hoggett: The site is intended to be a resource on 20th century cybernetic machines, humanoid robots, and walking machines. It diverges now and then as some earlier interests rekindle themselves to the point of starting a new category, e.g., pneumatics in robots.
And you occasionally dip into into the 21st century as well, yeah?
Yes, mainly if there are minimal items and the original idea has been re-born, e.g., exoskeletons, walking rickshaws, human-powered walking machines, and the like. Not modern humanoids such as ASIMO, they’re too numerous for the time it would take, and they are adequately covered by many others out there.
Your site is an excellent resource, no doubt, but it’s pretty obscure. I found you through a very specific keyword and image query, and aside from search indexing or backlinking from the sites you’re sharing, email appears to be the only way to connect. Any desire to promote or gain wider exposure?
Most people who have contacted me via the site have been amazed by the researched material presented. I have helped several thesis students. Unfortunately, I’m not a website expert and some good info gets buried. But it is a treasure find for those who do scroll beyond the opening page. My only regret with a much larger audience would be my inability re: lack of available time to respond adequately to their questions, assuming they want to contact me.
Okay, if not for money or fame, why did you build it?
My interest in all things robots is a lifetime one. Since a boy I had scrapbooks of robots, computers, rockets, flying saucers, medical science advances, telescopes, and other popular science topics. I think I reached a point where I asked myself what was I going to do with all this material, and I had a sense of, whilst it was a personal collection, it was potentially unique, and the last thing I wanted was for a lifetime’s effort to be trashed when I eventually pass away.
I first started sending articles about Edward Ihnatowicz and his cybernetic sculptures to Alex Zivanovic who has a wonderful site on the Senster. I also looked around for a similar site for my material, and that started the wonderful and ongoing relationship with David Buckley and his website on Robot History Makers.
I need to digress slightly. One of my other passions in life is classic Italian sports motorcycles, and noticing that some of the key engineers of the era were dying off, e.g., Taglioni of Ducati, Tonti of Moto Guzzi, etc., it occurred to me that possibly no one was recording the life of these unique individuals. Naturally, it also occurred to me that no one was recording the stories of the pioneers of cybernetic machines (e.g., Grey Walter) and robot artists (e.g., Bruce Lacey).
So in 2009 I planned a trip to Europe, including the UK, to at least catch up with those I was particularly interested in and whose contact information I could get. The trip included a visit with David Buckley, who eventually asked if he could join me. After that, I knew David didn’t have the time to publish more of my material, and that some of my interests were outside his main theme. I bit the bullet and started my own website.
That’s kind of awesome and inspiring. Of your own volition, at your own expense, you got in touch with these robotics people, and just up and went to Europe to talk to them?
Yes, that’s right. It started off with seeing Grey Walter’s tortoises, both the replicas at the Bristol Robotics Labs and the original in London’s Science Museum, along with his archives at Swindon. The aging artist Bruce Lacey still has R.O.S.A.B.O.S.O.M., one of my early inspirations. Then, it was off to Paris to see Nicolas Schöffer’s widow and his CYSP-1 machine, Albert Ducrocq’s cybernetic fox, and Jim Whiting’s pneumatic robot performances and his wonderful Bimbotown. We saw Hannes Heiner from Dead Chickens in Berlin, then, in Vienna, Heinz Zemanek’s collection including the Homeostat, Maze Solver, and the Vienna Turtle. Zemanek built the world’s first fully transistorised computer. We then travelled to Hungary to see Daniel Muszka and his cybernetic beetle, still operational after all this time. Lastly, we went to the Nikola Tesla Museum in Budapest to see the Telautomaton [sic] replica. Quite a trip.
Do you have any plans for the long-term preservation of the site?
That’s a more pertinent question than you may think. A few years ago I found myself needing a mechanical heart valve and a pacemaker (does that make me a cyborg?). It was a motivating factor to publish my collection of information whilst I still could. Assuming the worst, I’ve been looking for a local enthusiast who could take over both my site and library of books and papers. I recently met a University lecturer with similar interests, and he’s the most likely candidate. The Wayback Machine is also a potential contingency.
[Sadly, Mr. Hoggett has been given a “you only have X number of years to live” prognosis, and he’s closer to the end of X than the beginning. Quite accidentally, it seems I’m doing a kind of poor man’s digital facsimile of his 2009 trip.]
How does it sit with you that cybernetics, an obvious passion of yours, hasn’t developed to a point where it could save your life?
In my case, the pacemaker has largely taken over the beating of the heart, but the heart muscle is damaged, and mechanical hearts have been around a while, but they haven’t yet built one that runs forever. The most promising advancement is the use of stem cells, but that is years away, and not cybernetic!
[Yeaahh. Not really sure how to transition out of that not at all amusing piece of irony.
So, let’s get back to a happier place: ROBOTS!]
When they encounter robots, most people think “cool” or “creepy” or “scary,” and then move on. The dorkier among us find deep fascination, and you’ve obviously got an advanced black belt in that. Robots hit a nerve for us, and some reasons are readily obvious, but I’m intrigued by the underlying psychology as well. What got you interested?
I’m not sure there was a defining point. As a child I kept scrapbooks on anything science, including robots. The robots in the media in the early 1960’s were mainly of the “mechanical man” variety. Dr. Who and the Daleks were on TV, then Lost in Space became my favourite show. As a child I totally believed that they and their inner working bits were real. I had this fascination for how things worked. I then saw a book called Robots, by Nigel Calder, and it had a picture of Grey Walter’s tortoise, and, through the transparent shell, you could see ‘how it worked.’ I used to tinker with Meccano, and my mum used to say she wouldn’t be surprised if one day a robot walked out of my bedroom.
What was your particular fascination?
Maybe it was one of control. A robot that would obey my every command. More so, I think, was the possibility of building a machine that would be autonomous, behave animal or human-like, and creating artificial life.
For you, is it robots in general, or a particular variety?
It used to be robots in general, but I realised in the mid 1980’s that it was more of the humanoid, walking robots, along with art robots, that I really liked, just like when I was a child. There’s something endearing about humanoid robots. I had an affinity for them.
Where are things going? Think the robots of fiction might soon be walking the streets, so to speak?
Yes, I do. To some extent they are doing it now – cars that drive themselves, walking robots such as ASIMO. Somehow, though, I don’t think they’ll be walking the streets with us as portrayed in movies such as I, Robot. If their only purpose was to to go to the corner store to pick up some items, that novelty will wear off pretty quickly, assuming we would still need to go to the corner store. I think we’ll see a lot of exoskeletons first.
And, as you mentioned, what about creating artificial life – good idea?
Depending upon one’s definition, artificial life is here already. Regardless of whether it’s a good idea or not, that’s the way we’re heading. I also find that the definition of what’s considered ‘human’ is constantly changing, particularly when novel technology behaves human-like and challenges the earlier definition. The bar gets raised, but our technology keeps improving. We still want to distinguish between man and machine.
Okay, I’m going to finish up with the stereotypical-wish-speculation-what-if question. Which fictional robot, or actual project in development, would you most like to see realized and deployed?
That’s a good question, as I seem to be spending most of my time looking at or researching the old robots, and less time keeping up to date with the new. There are so many new robots, it’s difficult for me to select one. That being the case, I’m inclined to go to fiction, the robot in Asimov’s Bicentennial Man, certainly for its capabilities, but more so the issues of this age re: robot rights and ethics.
[Want to point out here that the “Bicentennial Man” Mr. Hoggett refers to is not the one portrayed in the saccharine cheeseloaf movie from 1999.]
Mr. Hoggett, thanks for talking with me. I really appreciate your openness, wish you and your family the best, and speaking for all humans interested in robotics, which I’m totally allowed to do, thank you for building Cyberneticzoo.com.
My pleasure, Reno. This is the first interview I’ve given. I wish great success and prosperity to you personally and with Anthrobotic.com.
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And that’s that.
Mr. Hoggett is a humble, unassuming man who was more that happy to speak with me, and I’ve already learned a great deal from his work – primarily how much I didn’t know that I didn’t know.
His is an excellent example of pursuing a passion to meaningful ends, and not to get all Nike up in here, but hey, if you’re interested in something, you should go find it, or just go do it! You also might end up building something unique and valuable.
Or, like me, you might end up building the internet version of a plastic toy bullhorn – but I do so enjoy the yelling, and I’m pleased to be able to share Mr. Hoggett’s work.
Thanks for reading!