Science Fiction Studies

# 14 = Volume 5, Part 1 = March 1978

Paul A. Abrahm and Stuart Kenter

Tik-Tok and the Three Laws of Robotics

Over two and a half decades before the now-famed Three Laws of Robotics were even a glimmer in their originator's mind, there existed, in fiction, a robot who represented a perfect embodiment of those laws. His name was Tik-Tok and he appeared, faithful guardian that he was, nearly always at the side of his human, the little girl Dorothy, who adventured her wondrous way without letup through the fantastic land of Oz in the books by L. Frank Baum.1 It comes as no particular surprise, then, that Isaac Asimov, formulator of the Three Laws, admits to having first had "a dim notion" of them from his initial robot story which also contained (in fact, centered on) a relationship between a little girl, Gloria (who is roughly the age of Dorothy), and her robot, a nursemaid/playmate called Robbie.2

It was, according to Asimov, Gloria's father who voiced what was the then-embryonic conceptualization of the Laws when he pointed out to his wife that Robbie "couldn't help being faithful and loving and kind. He's a machine — made so."3 In Asimov's third robot story ("Liar." Astounding Science Fiction, May 1941) the idea of a formal law of harmlessness for robots developed further, and at the writing of the fifth story ("Runaround," Astounding Science Fiction, May 1942) the process had been completed — "I had worked out my Three Laws of Robotics."4

Since the Laws apply only to robots, Tik-Tok must be shown to be a bona fide member of this "species" (rather than a mere windup toy or "mechanical man" (as he is called on the plate riveted to his back),5 before it is demonstrated that he did indeed incorporate these regulations into his behavior prior to their creation.

Establishing robot identity is no easy task. Though the concept of a "robot" can be traced back to sources within the ancient mythologies of many diverse cultures,6 and has thus been with humanity for an exceedingly long time, it nevertheless eludes precise definition7 (e.g., Must a robot be a "machine"? Resemble human form? Be made expressly for work or service? Can it have "feelings"? Create thought? Die?). In addition, frequent carelessness in the use of nomenclature pertaining to the full range of fictionally manmade artificial intelligences (androids, robots, computers, humanoids, for starters) blurs these various categories causing conceptual confusion; e.g., is the monster made by Frankenstein a robot; is the computer HAL?8

Since definitions are unreliable it seems more appropriate, in determining what is or is not a "robot," to compare the entity in question with conventions developed over the centuries by those thinkers and writers involved with the problem. Once the file labeled "artificial intelligence" is opened, however, we are immediately confronted with the most fundamental inquiries into the nature of life, death, sex, work, and the mechanisms of the mind, a large order requiring exhausting pilgrimages into literature, philosophy, and an impressive array of scientific and technical realms.

One method of coping is provided by science fiction. Long a major thematic concern of this genre, the robot has been (and is being) constantly analyzed within this speculative frame. Modern science fiction — that written from 1940 on, say — extrapolates thought on the subject from mythic motifs and robotic theory to form what amounts to an ongoing canon of robot lore. Given the birth of Tik-Tok in the first quarter of the twentieth century, this "mechanical man" may be contrasted to selected historical and, from his place in time, future trends in literary robotology (which he himself may have influenced) to see how well he does fit the mold.

1. Identification. The most popular, but poorest, criterion for a robot is that he be made of metal and have a human shape. Though science fiction writers know that "a robot can be a tiny mechanism hidden behind a panel, a square box on a table, or a massive, mile-long computer,"9 nonetheless a huge percentage of fictive robots have the morphology of humans. Their eyes may have x-ray capability, their limbs modified to perform super-human feats, but the strong penchant for the basic human shape remains. Graphic representation nearly always depicts the robot in the form of a symmetrical biped. This anthropomorphic bias (with its undercurrent of species narcissism) certainly applies to Tik-Tok, who has torso, legs, arms, neck, and head all in their proper position and all properly constructed of metal:

His body was round as a ball and made out of burnished copper. Also his head and limbs were copper, and these were jointed or hinged to his body in a peculiar way, with metal caps over joints like the armor worn by knights in the days of old. [1:40]

Conventional as it is, however, the mere possession of a metallic body is no proof positive of robothood. One does not even have to venture out of Oz to encounter others made of metal who in no way belong to the robot family. Witness the Tin Woodman, Tin Soldier, and the "gigantic man built out of plates of cast iron" (1:134). This latter was purchased by the nonhuman Nome King to guard the main approach to his mountainous domain and accomplishes this goal by rhythmically pounding the path with a "terrible iron mallet" (1:135). An outsized clockwork figurine, the iron man does not have a "speaking or thinking attachment" (1:136); he is a pat, single-purpose automaton, mechanized and totally dumb.10 Dorothy and crew quickly turn his perfect synchronization to advantage by gauging the blows and dashing through when the hammer is on the upstroke. A robot could never be so quickly outwitted.

The matter of the Tin Woodman, as well as the Tin Soldier whose situation is virtually the same, is a more complex affair. At one time a man of "flesh and blood and bone" or "meat man" (3:8), as he is fond of referring to his former self, the Tin Woodman was an humble woodchopper who incurred the wrath of the Wicked Witch of the East over his love for her ward, the young lady, Nimmie Amee. His "meat" body was systematically hacked to pieces by his own axe, enchanted by the Witch. Every time he lost a limb or organ he went for repairs to the tinsmith, a combined internist and prosthetic engineer. At the end of this chain of events, the woodchopper was, inside and out, made entirely of tin, a veritable showcase of successful spare-part surgery — the ultimate in cyborgs.

What we are left to deal with is a human essence domiciled in a metal body. Not a personality artificially forged from metal and installed but a natural one corporeally transposed. Though the two are subject to certain shared experiences (e.g., both can corrode), they are radically different beings.

Never do any of the Oz characters challenge the notion that the Tin Woodman is "alive" yet all indulge in blunt and constant denials of this state for Tik-Tok. Dorothy: "This copper man is not alive" (1:42). Billina the Hen: "It isn't alive" (1:42). The Scarecrow: "Are you alive? It must be a great misfortune not to be alive" (1:102). Quox the Dragon: "You are not a live thing. You're a dummy" (2:147).

This vehement insistence on lifelessness11 for the copper man allows him to be castigated as inferior (though not as inferior as the iron man, easily dismissed as a simple pummeling mechanism by the personae who, in Tik-Tok's case, have to decide whether or not he is alive, rendering questionable the premise that he is not) — while the Tin Man is accepted as an equal. Though the three are anatomically similar, the resemblance stops there: the Tin Woodman is a human; the iron giant, machine; Tik-Tok, neither.

If the metallic body itself yields no foolproof guarantee as to the kind of guiding intelligence within,12 there are nonetheless aspects about it which can indicate robot presence. It is traditional, for instance, that a robot's body be manufactured by men and not by other means.13 Although it is never stated overtly in the Oz narratives that Tik-Tok's makers, Smith and Tinker, are human beings, the assumption that they are indeed men is a safe one, despite the fact that their work is accomplished in a magical land called Ev. Several reasons indicate the validity of this assumption.

First of all, Tik-Tok is produced technologically, even though he exists in a fictional world where most things come about by magic. Oz and other regions in the series are the simplistic, non-industrialized countries of wizardry. In these places, dinners and guns grow on trees. The factory-produced machine is alien to the nature of this world, and any found therein points to the presence of the non-magical human being. (Technology and magic thus come into direct contact in this fiction with the implication that technology, as the better method of accomplishment, will eventually destroy magic. Any robot made by a magician would of necessity have to differ from one made by a man.)

Second, many magical territories of the Oz books do not exclude human beings from rights-of-entry or residence, although access to the Land of Oz itself is closed off except through magic. Many humans, like Dorothy and Betsy Bobbin, arrived in Ev easily enough. This information, along with the fact that both Smith and Tinker are referred to by that human form of address, "Mr.," reinforces the feeling that, rather than citizens by birth, they must be men who settled in Ev.

Third, humans new to the customs of magic countries must cope with the bewildering powers of the various natives. The Wizard, upon initial arrival, could do no magic, just tricks. He countered indigenous magicmakers with sleight-of-hand, a survival technique that protected him until he himself learned the magic of the country. The people who end up in Oz and bordering regions are frightened by magic but they are not afraid of Tik-Tok, which suggests that he was made by human hand. It is interesting to speculate that Smith and Tinker may have built Tik-Tok complete with the Three Laws to protect themselves against the inhabitants that knew magic.

Dr. Robert Plank has demonstrated that, regardless of the era in which it happens, specific patterns consistently appear in the circumstances surrounding the event of robot manufacture.14 One is that the manufacturers themselves (working in conjunction or alone) are uniformly male.15 Smith and Tinker, the male conceivers and producers of Tik-Tok, meet more of the orthodox specifications for the robot-maker than masculinity.

While suggesting the technical skills of those ancient and medieval mechanicians and metallurgists who designed and forged moving statues from earliest antiquity,16 the surnames of Smith and Tinker simultaneously evoke the archetypal image of the Smith/Inventor Gods. The archetype of the Divine Smith permeates the mythology of many cultures17 and is often associated with the creation of prototype robots. In the Greek myths, for example, the smith-god, Hephaestus, is credited with making Talos, a "bull-headed" bronze man who guarded Crete for King Minos.18

As figures of classical roboticist stature, Smith and Tinker practice their trade in an unsafe pre-Asimovian era. Prior to the species-specific self defensive Three Laws of Robotics (1942), works of fiction focusing on artificial beings housed a goodly share of automata and robots who turned against their makers. Anti-people onslaughts and rebellions were the vogue. Not all imaginary pre-Asimovian synthetic life (metallic or organic) were out to destroy their human "fathers" by any means, but the theme of the artificially created murdering its natural creator (which saw intense application in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of 1816 and Karel Čapek's drama, R.U.R. (of 1921) was certainly the most influential in this particular kind of narrative.19

It would seem, then, that, as turn-of-the-century robot-makers representative of a literary class, Smith and Tinker would be prone to suffering the conventional fate of most of their fictional colleagues. This eventuality is, however, impossible due to the fact that Tik-Tok has, as we shall see, the yet-to-be-articulated Three Laws operable within him. A compromise is thus effected. Smith and Tinker are absented by the fruits of their own ingenuity, but not by their "son," who couldn't accomplish "fratricide" even if he wanted to. Smith, whose sideline was art, painted a river that was so realistic he fell into it and drowned; and Tinker, constructing a ladder long enough to reach the moon, set it up, climbed, pulled it up after himself and has "never been seen since." (Like the Wizard, these partners evidently learned a little magic from the endemic nonhuman population.)

Vanishing alone and in seclusion but teaming up for the Tik-Tok project as they did, these men represent an amalgam of the old and the new in creators of artificial life. The isolated alchemists in ill-lit labs and the lone, secretive nineteenth century robot-making protagonists went the way of dinosaurs. Smith and Tinker presage the trend in twentieth century robot research: pooled expertise. Thus, modern literary robots are turned out by technical specialists20 underwritten by government, by institutions, or by private enterprise.

The firm of Smith and Tinker are prime examples of robot-makers from the private sector. Robots born of private industry march through contemporary American science fiction brandishing commercialism (1:43):

Smith & Tinker's

Patent Double-Action Extra-Responsive


Fitted With Our Special Clock-Work Attachment

Thinks, Speaks, Acts and Does Everything But Live

Manufactured Only at Our Works at Evna, Land of Ev

All Infringements Will Be Promptly Prosecuted

According to Law

Additionally, the fictional profit-motivated robot manufacturers tend, after the fashion of armament tycoons, to mix in international politics. Thus, Smith and Tinker unconscionably accepted a commission from the tyrannical Nome King (who presided over a state hostile to their own native Land of Ev) to provide him with the latest in defensive weaponry: a giant cast iron automated road guard complete with mallet.

As technician/capitalists, these partners reflect the development of the literary roboticist as artisan/scientist/entrepreneur. They presage that later period in the literature wherein technicians were themselves the controlling captains of robot industry, and laid the basis for the still later phase in which the applied science and administrative functions of robot production split. Because the men who made Tik-Tok are, at their place in time, certifiable members in the fraternity of fictional robot-makers, their robot's body satisfies a time honored condition of manufacture. And just as the archetypal Smith and Tinker serve as bridge figures in the evolution of their profession, so Tik-Tok himself functions in kind for robots.

In his role as link between the dead past and unfolding future of robots, Tik-Tok exists as mongrel. His body retains the unique and carefully wrought characteristics of the hand-crafted automaton in its nonfunctional hat, its moustache, its spats (as shown in the Oz illustrations) and its special long-lasting copper, yet it does not emerge from the workshop of individual artisan but, rather, from the factory. Tik-Tok's appellation, recalling the mechanistic features of his parentage, also sets the tone for the ensuing generations of robots, whose own serial number names (X-180, Seven-Two, etc.) reveal their assembly-line origins. In addition, like the automata of old but unlike most modern fictive robots, Tik-Tok needs people for continued activation. In the manner of mechanical toy or clockwork doll, he comes with a set of instructions: (1) "For Thinking: — Wind the Clockwork Man Under His Left Arm"; (2) "For Speaking: — Wind the Clockwork Man Under His Right Arm"; (3) "For Walking and Action: — Wind the Clockwork Man in the Middle of His Back"; and "N.B. — This Mechanism is guaranteed to Work Perfectly for a Thousand Years" (1:44).

Such activation devices, as well as other tangible elements, can be a tipoff that the metal body does contain a robo-presence. Externalized electronic gimmickry, for example, is almost standard fictive fare for twentieth-century robots. Though human-powered, Tik-Tok foresaw the trend to current-power, for when he commences to think, "at once flashes of light begin to show in the top of his head" (2:74).

Voice can be another giveaway. The Tin Woodman speaks like any other human but the robot voice is cold, metallic, whirring, distant, or, in Tik-Tok, the vocalization is "hoarse and creaky" (1:46), the words "uttered all in the same tone, without any change of expression whatever"; a "monotonous voice which seemed to be worked by bellows inside of him"; his intonation, based on an exacting syllabic breakdown, is in tune with human expectations regarding the way a robot should sound — i.e., mechanical: "Good morning, lit-tle girl. Thank you for res-cu-ing me" (1:46).

Tik-Tok needs a voice because, in the words of the Shaggy Man, "His thoughts may be interesting but they don't tell us anything — Wind up his talking machine" (2:74). So, while the robot requires simulated vocal chords for purposes of communication, he gets along quite well without most of the other internal accouterments of creatures biologically alive. All the functions of a genuine robot are inorganic: his "myology" falls within the province of the metallurgical engineer; his "physiology" is fueled by the food of mechanical or electrical energy (offered cold cuts and crab salad by Dorothy, Tik-Tok politely refuses on grounds that he is "merely a machine"); and, though he eventually runs down to statue stillness and remains motionless until recharged (or wound), fully activated he needs no rest or sleep.

Since this organic vacuity makes Tik-Tok existentially different, he must learn to cope. Like other sleepless lifeforms in Oz, he finds from experience how to "pass the time patiently and quietly, since all his friends who were made of flesh had to sleep and did not like to be disturbed"; still, we see that these nights of waiting are "rather a bore" to Tik-Tok (1:176). The facts that he can learn from experience and be bored imply the existence of a functioning brain. Automata were pure body, but robots can possess mind.

While the metal body must meet certain qualifying conditions, the key testing ground for robothood lies in the occupying intelligence. Though never privy to the innermost workings of Tik-Tok's mind, we do, however, have ample behavioral evidence that his inner self is essentially robotic. In the first place, he's equipped with those necessary stock components of his modern science-fiction counterparts: logic circuitry and memory banks.

His logic is impeccable. Basing an important decision on the premise of Tik-Tok's thought, the Great Jinjin, Ti-ti-ti-hoo-choo (the most potent of all magic Powers in any of Baum's fantasy nations), expresses his faith in the mechanical man's "brain": "Tik-Tok has spoken truly, for his machinery will not allow him to lie, nor will it allow his thoughts to think falsely. Therefore, these people are not our enemies" (2:125).

As a logician incapable of deceit and syllogistically pure, Tik-Tok has a rationality that draws upon stored fact21 and responds with a strict literality that sometimes hampers communication ("Fall in," commands an officer in the Queen of Oogaboo's army in which Tik-Tok is pressed temporarily into service as a mercenary. "Fall in what? The well?" Tik-Tok asks, genuinely perplexed [2:89]) and, at other times, can be downright exasperating ("How shall we go to the Nome King's cavern, Tik-Tok?" "We might crawl, or jump, or roll o-ver and o-ver un-til we get there; but the best way is to walk" [2:76]).

Ludicrous when rendered in language, this punch-card sorting of possibilities happens with lightning swiftness in Tik-Tok and, as with any good computer, the printout (herein voiced) is useful. In one situation after another, Tik-Tok's quick logic proves beneficial: He refines the idea of dashing under the iron giant's hammer by walking up "to the very edge" of where it strikes and then moving underneath on its ascent (1:139). This method is adopted. He advises Princess Ozma to "try en-treat-y" when her request for the Nome King to appear gets nowhere (1:149). The pleading works. And it is Tik-Tok's cleverness alone that frees his troop of allies from the locked Nome King's chamber by summoning a nome via gong. The nome, thinking the sound a call from his king, unbolts the door from the other side to enter.

Wonderful as it is, the ratiocinative segment of Tik-Tok's intelligence operates under constraints. Stymied by an enormously complex "life or death" problem involving permutation,22 Tik-Tok, like any overloaded thinking machine organic or otherwise, fails. "My thoughts are not much use in this case," he observes before succumbing (1:188). Also, when forced to deal with raw or totally new data, he cannot cope. Asked which road to take in territory unfamiliar to him, he can only issue the equivalent of an Insufficient Information response: "My ma-chin-er-y is not made to tell that" (2:76). Born too soon to reap the ultrasophisticated improvements of the cybernetic revolution, Tik-Tok nevertheless does better logically than could rightfully be expected of any pre-1920 literary robot.

Even his memory banks are futuristic. New informational "bits" are rapidly recorded, and entire events are not immediately forgotten after they occur. His mnemonic component has the dual features of immediate access store and backing store. Unlike the act of recall in the majority of humans, Tik-Tok's oldest memories are tapped with facility. With the retentive tenacity of magnetic tape, these memories from further back in time do not fade. They are generally of two distinct types: past experience which Tik-Tok himself has undergone (he displays intimate knowledge of nome culture from having been exposed to it before); and remembered information relayed to him by others.23 Never having been in the Land of Oz he can still convey its history — "the Scare-crow was de-posed by a sol-dier wo-man named Gen-er-al Jin-jur" (1:62).

His most recent memories, however, are, after the manner of humans, more readily brought to mind: "then I walked back and forth in this lit-tle room un-til my ac-tion ran down; and then I stood still and thought un-til my thought ran down. Af-ter that I re-mem-ber no-thing un-til you wound me up a-gain" (1:48).

If the "unconsciousness" of deactivation does not allow the absorption of sense data during its duration, it also does not impair any of Tik-Tok's memories that occurred prior to it. Nor does the inoperative "blackout" state do any damage to two additional mental qualities that Tik-Tok holds in common with the most avant garde of fictive robots: a sense of self-awareness and the ability to make considered judgments about others.

The capacity to critically assess is a crucial program instruction. In order to act, the robot must be able to determine who is doing what to whom and why. Tik-Tok relies heavily on his judgmental parameters to size up situations. For example, in the pro and con discussion regarding invasion of the nonhuman nomes whose king has imprisoned the Queen of Ev and her ten children, Tik-Tok points out that the Nome King did no wrong because mother, sons, and daughters were sold to him by the King of Ev who is thus the one responsible for the family's fate.24

But the judging apparatus is, in this turn-of-the-century model, not absolutely perfect. In another incident, Tik-Tok misjudges the Nome King completely and has difficulty accepting the error: "My thoughts are us-u-al-ly cor-rect but it is Smith and Tin-ker's fault if they some-times go wrong or do not work prop-er-ly" (1:212).

Such buckpassing smacks of a compensatory defense mechanism which, in turn, indicates a highly developed sense of self. This sense ranges in Tik-Tok from a vain concern with body image and appearance ("Get off my foot, please, you are scratch-ing my pol-ish" [1:102]) to a strong investment in the maintenance of his ego. In running verbal battles with nearly all of Dorothy's friends, Tik-Tok is ever having to defend against the insults thrust at him. He is an early precursor of those modern robots used as ethnic minority surrogates by science-fiction writers commenting on social suppression.

The prejudice-based attacks on the robot by humans and others is a challenge to the robotic "self" which, in Tik-Tok, remains healthy. He wards off psychological aggression with pride and subtlety, holding his own in the art of repartee. "You have no brains," the Scarecrow taunts. "Oh, yes I have," Tik-Tok replies, "I am fit-ted with Smith and Tin-ker's Im-proved Com-bin-a-tion Steel Brains. They are what make me think. What sort of brains are you fit-ted with?" (1:102-03).

Those steel brains have a talent for irony. Snubbing Tik-Tok, the Tin Woodman boasts of his own superiority due to ownership of "an excellent heart that is continuously beating in my bosom."25 "I con-grat-u-late you." Tik-Tok replies (1:103). His protective regard for the integrity of "self" is pervasive. When the Tin Woodman loses the Nome King's guessing game and is turned into an ornament, Tik-Tok ruminates on the occasion in a way that suggests he is doing some analogue thinking (or projection) about his own situation: "He was al-ways an or-na-ment to so-ci-e-ty" (1:176).

Self-reflective consciousness, as part of robotic existence, assumes a robotic ego. The Scarecrow, getting snotty, takes aim directly at the center of this ego: "Oh," he says snidely, "are you useful?" "Ver-y," says Tik-Tok, conveying a cold selfassurance that would, if the flat intonation were only capable of it, seem downright sinister.

One of the two seemingly indispensable features in any profile of the robot temperament is the total lack of emotion. The consensus amongst science fiction writers is that, no matter how identical in other ways, the robot is always distinguishable from the human by his complete nonemotionality. Love, hate, happiness, sorrow, fear, whatever the emotion, the robot simply cannot experience it — and nearly all those robots fictionally fashioned later than the first quarter of the twentieth century are aware that they cannot. In this respect, Tik-Tok is before his time. "I am on-ly a ma-chine," he responds to being thanked for his kindness, "I can-not be kind a-ny more than I can be sor-ry or glad" (1:70).

The insusceptibility to passions and feelings leads directly to that other essential aspect of the robot mentality: the absence of a soul. Nearly all literary examples of artificial intelligence from pre-Frankenstein times to the far-flung humanoids of countless imagined futures have this denominator in common.26 The curious description on Tik-Tok's label — "Thinks, Speaks, Acts, and Does Everything But Live" (1:43) — is a puzzling non sequitur unless considered in light of the convention concerning nonpossession of soul.

In imposing soullessness or living death upon Tik-Tok, the characters of the Oz saga dance around some of the major elements in the long and twisted philosophical/theological/scientific inquiry into the issues of what comprises the soul, and how the soul relates to the condition of being alive. Their push to establish that Tik-Tok is indeed without soul and hence without real life operates on two fronts.

Moving on the mind-as-the-seat-of-the-soul assumption, his adversaries go about taking pains to uncover and play up the fact that the mechanical man's mind does not contain any of those ingredients which go into the makeup of soul. More than once, they force Tik-Tok to confess that he has no heart (read feelings, compassion), no organic brains (ability to think creatively), and no conscience (moral awareness).

Secondly, they capitalize on concepts borrowed from the old vitalist-mechanist debate. Quox, the dragon, master teleologist, is chief spokesman for the vitalist side: "The [internal] fire [i.e., biochemical processes symbolic of the vitalist entelechy] keeps me alive and enables me to move, also to think and speak." "Ah," replies Tik-Tok, advancing the mechanist view. "You are ver-y much like my-self. The on-ly dif-fer-ence is that I move by clock-work while you move by fire."

"I don't see a particle of likeness between us I must confess," retorts Quox, fanatic in denial that the two theories could ever merge. "But I can do things, you must ad-mit," Tik-Tok counters, "Yes, when you are wound up." sneers the dragon. "But if you run down, you are helpless."

A human intervenes on the mechanical man's behalf. The character, Shaggy Man, calls the dragon on his last point: "What would happen to you, Quox, if you — ran out of fire?" (2:147-48).

In another conversation with different personalities, the Shaggy Man, waxing poetic about the magic of Nature, again obliquely offers defense for Tik-Tok being as "alive" in his own way as any animal: "The cows that manufacture milk for us must have machinery fully as remarkable as that in Tik-Tok's copper body —" (2:162).

Shaggy is heading toward the clear admission that synthetically created life can be equal to life that has evolved naturally. Such a concept is rejected as outlandish, shocking, and totally repugnant to the majority of people who co-exist with androids and/or robots in the pages of science fiction. The anti-robot zealots of the printed page reflect, in their bias, an ancient and deep-felt anxiety about artificial beings made by man. The means devised to incapacitate or destroy robots when necessary are created and perfected in large part to assuage this fundamental fear.

2. Incapacitation. Literary exploration of the incapacitation and/or destruction of robots has been intense. Tik-Tok displays many of the patterns now intrinsic to this area. Resident of a fantasyland ignorant of space flight, Tik-Tok is confined to this planet and is consequently built to function under normal Earth conditions. As a result, he is susceptible to natural forces. He frequently stumbles, for example. During a rush attack on the nomes, as a typical instance, he trips over a rock and falls flat. Largely because of this kind of experience on the part of their progenitors, modern fictional robots have acquired fancy anti-gravity devices, super or customized plug-in limbs, balance gyroscopes, or other paraphernalia to achieve mastery over Earth or alien atmospheres.

As a victim of accidents free of human cause, Tik-Tok does not suffer. He does not have the frailty of flesh. Felled, he needs a helping hand to get to his feet but falling will not bruise him — he cannot be cut, bleed, become infected. In the words of Shaggy Man, "nothing can injure him except a sledge hammer." This higher-than-human imperviousness to harm poses a major problem when, for whatever reason, man decides to destroy or subdue a robot.

Elaborate and ingenious schemes have, throughout the literature of the twentieth century, been tried for the total destruction of robots. The methods deliberated for Tik-Tok's complete annihilation are basic ones. Those mentioned in passing include the use of lime and of hammers, or "death" by corrosion and beating, respectively. The main murder weapon, by far and away the one most favored, is heat. The Nome King, Ruggedo by name, gives this technique its clearest and harshest expression: "Have the gold crucible heated to a white, seething heat and then we'll dump the copper man into it and melt him up" (2:190).

Often, man's goal is not extermination of the robot but rather its restraint. Tik-Tok illustrates the primary types of confinement: imprisonment, ordered work, and deactivation.

Dorothy first discovers the mechanical man in a rocky cavern with a locked door. He was incarcerated there until his mechanism ran down. In another scene of initial discovery, Tik-Tok is found in the bottom of a deep well where he had been tossed by the Nome King. The well, another prison, contained him like a "confused mass of copper" amidst heaps of trash. A variant of "arrest" involves the use of weight. During a sequence of close combat, the Nome King and his general, Guph, immobilize Tik-Tok by turning him on his back and placing an enormous diamond on top of him. The heavy diamond pins the robot to the ground.27

It is the tyrannical Ruggedo who toys with the idea of constraint through command. Knowing Tik-Tok to be a "steady worker" (as all robots are), the Nome King has it in mind to make him labor in the depths of the mines for good, thereby keeping him occupied and out of circulation with a servitude indentured for eternity.

The final way of restraining a robot for prolonged periods is the most pervasive: deactivation. Nearly all fictional robot manufacturers build a shut-off system of one kind or another into their product. Insurance of this type is vital. The modern robot is usually constructed so that it can neither interfere with the cutoff process nor reactivate itself against human wish. The rudiments of the various "off" switches can be seen in Tik-Tok, whose wind-up mechanism is an automatic deactivation timer which he himself is powerless to control. Even if he had the key, his elbow joints would not permit his hands to maneuver the activator into insert position.

Like the majority of man-made robots, Tik-Tok needs people for revitalization and maintenance. He is aware of this dependence, even shows "consternation" at Tinker's disappearance — "If I should get out of or-der I do not know of an-y one a-ble to re-pair me be-cause I am so com-pli-ca-ted" (1:59). This awareness is quite sophisticated for a mechanical model of his time, and reveals him linked to futuristic robots in yet one more way. Without people, mechanical robotic energy can diminish to zero. At the point of deactivation, Tik-Tok gives a "sort of gurgle," a death rattle whereby his voice breaks down: "Be-cause they are ag-g-gr-gr-r-r---" and he stops short, frantically waving his arm, then freezes with "one arm in the air and the other held stiffly before him with all the copper fingers of the hand spread out like a fan," the body slipping into rigor mortis and the mind into the indefinite darkness of robot "death" (1:52).28

3. Instruction. "Ma-ny thanks!" Usually Tik-Tok's first words upon activation, this expression is not one of gratitude (the robot cannot feel grateful) but rather a ceremonial phrase of recognition couched in politeness programmed in by Smith and Tinker. Generally, Tik-Tok gets along quite well with humans; he is respectful and respected in turn. It is mostly representatives of the nonhuman fantasy lifeforms who derogate or despise him, and the robot's relations with these types are, with a few exceptions, poor.

Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, all of which hold the welfare of the human sacred, almost guarantee friendship between humans and lawful robots. In Dorothy's social introduction of the mechanical man ("and this gentleman is a machine named "Tik-Tok") and in Shaggy Man's introduction ("This is Tik-Tok, the Clockwork Man, who works better than some meat people."), the respect of the human for the amicable, controlled robot is apparent (2:79).

In a way, the essence of the laws is automatically present in robots like Tik-Tok who need people for activation, for such a robot would be aware that Thou Shalt Not Hurt a Human Being or He Won't Wind You Up. This type of robot, therefore, has to care about people for his own self-preservation. Asimov's Laws derive from this concept, but utilize a different emphasis: Thou Shalt Not Harm the Humans Who Wind You Up. If the elements of the Asimovian prescription for robot control were already present in the mechanical robot's existential situation, it becomes easier to see how the Three Laws themselves showed up in the robot Tik-Tok, a quarter of a century before they were formulated.

FIRST LAW: "A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." Never does Tik-Tok in any way show hostility toward, hurt, or make a threatening gesture against a human being. Even when the Shaggy Man, in a bout of exuberance, slaps Tik-Tok on the back and harshly topples him over, the robot shows no malice. He is made to protect his makers. Clear-cut examples of this protective behavior abound. The mechanical man aggressively defends Dorothy against the attack of the screaming Wheelers (nonhumans) by using her dinner pail as a club. He defends her ferociously, cracking heads like a crazed riot cop and refusing to let the terrified girl "come to harm." Later, in the nonhuman Princess Langwidere's drawing room, when Dorothy is ordered under arrest and the palace guards descend upon her, Tik-Tok, far from remaining in a state of "inaction," fells militia right and left until his power runs down.29 (These militia members are not human beings.)

This First Law bodyguard function extends to all humans. It is in the service of Law One that Tik-Tok was tossed down the well: he was on a mission to rescue Shaggy's brother. The robot overtly recognizes this "protect" instruction. Acting as a shield for Dorothy in front of the nonhuman Nome King's palace, Tik-Tok maintains that a slave should always face danger before his mistress.

SECOND LAW: "A robot must obey orders given it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the First Law." Tik-Tok states it as bluntly as it can be said: "I am a slave of the lit-tle girl Dor-o-thy." Or again: "From this time forth I am your o-be-di-ent ser-vant. What-ev-er you command, that I will do will-ing-ly if you keep me wound up" (1:50). A blatant acknowledgment of the requirements of this law. Tik-Tok does indeed obey. He guides, moves rocks out of the way, fetches, carries — in short, serves. And pays homage to the dictates of the Second Law by bowing politely to humans upon activation.

He "must obey" orders given to him by "human beings." These he cannot question. Commands from other sources are a different matter entirely. When Queen Ann of Oogaboo (a nonhuman) tries to convince Tik-Tok to join her army (which consists solely of officers; the robot would be the only private), Tik-Tok inquires, "What must I do?" "Obey orders," Ann tells him. "Do I get a sal-ar-y?" Tik-Tok wants to know (2:88), not only questioning Ann's wishes but asserting his independence in the bargain, an act that simply could not occur if Ann were a human woman.

Though once he voluntarily grants the Queen the rights of the Second Law, the robot behaves normally — "My or-ders [from Ann] were to conquer you," he says to the Nome King, "and my ma-chin-er-y has done the best it knows how to car-ry out those or-ders" (2:172).

None of the humans in the Oz fiction issue an order to Tik-Tok that would "conflict with the First Law" so the robot faces no unsolvable dilemmas that would destroy his decision-making mechanism.

THIRD LAW: "A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law." Looking ahead toward protection of his own existence as an armed combatant, Tik-Tok sorts the possibilities for his survival: "A sol-dier must be a-ble to run as well as to fight" (2:88). But knowing full well that if he loses to the nonhuman nomes he will be melted, he fights in direct accordance with the dictates of this law.

Tik-Tok and the nomes do square off in battle. "If you try to cap-ture me, I shall fight," the robot warns (2:172). He raises his rifle and takes aim, with every intent of killing nomes. Although he is disarmed before he can get off a shot, the incident reveals his readiness to follow Third Law programmed instruction. As he is protecting his own existence against danger from non-humans, there is no conflict with the First or Second Law.

The Three Laws do not regulate any aspect of robot behavior toward nonhuman (alien) lifeforms. Under Law Three, then, a human can order a robot to attack an alien with full confidence that the robot will comply. (As many an extaterrestrial victim of Earth robot aggression has discovered.) Tik-Tok is thus free to indulge in violent fantasy about other-than-human beings (without, of course, feeling hostility). He does fantasize in this manner, in brutal images: "I do not think Rug-ge-do would bleed if I filled him full of holes and put him in a ci-der press" (2:169).

Ruggedo, alias the Metal Monarch or Nome King, is a powerful non-human potentate who presides over all minerals, ores, and other inanimate substances beneath the ground. He claims to own all the metal hidden in the Earth. His domain is vast and populous with the nome citizenry divided into laborers and military personnel. The nomes mine; they also maintain enormous collections of precious jewels and ornaments.

Guardian of the Inorganic, the Nome King cannot stomach the idea of species other than nomes removing material from the ground. Along with all other nomes, he is repulsed by organic life, and loathes every manifestation of it bitterly.30 The Metal Monarch is doubly disgusted in witnessing his beloved metal turned into machines by man. When his High Chamberlain, Kaliko, suggests that "Tik-Tok is a very curious and interesting machine. It would be a shame to deprive the world of such a clever contrivance," the Monarch responds, "Say another word and you'll go into the furnace with him" (2:190). He cannot tolerate the idea of metal being turned into life.

To Ruggedo, consciousness from ores is, in fact, an unspeakable abomination. He is livid about Tik-Tok's existence and outraged at men for making it come to pass. But the humans of this fictional world, oblivious to the Metal Monarch and what he represents, seem happy enough with this first robot tamed through input of the Three Laws. Tik-Tok's initial words upon activation are, after all, quite charming and flattering. Still, bearing in mind the behavior of much uncontrolled artificial life in literature, one cannot help wondering — even with the safety of the Asimovian recommendations at hand — what meaning will underlie the First Words of the First Real-World Conscious Robot when it looks around the lab, regards its makers, and says, "Ma-ny thanks!"


1. This essay is based primarily on three volumes in the Oz series: (1) Ozma of Oz, 1907, (2) Tik-Tok of Oz, 1914, and (3) The Tin Woodman of 0z, 1918. The volume: page references are to the editions published by Reilly and Lee Company of Chicago.

2. Isaac Asimov, "And It Will Serve Us Right," Psychology Today, April 1969, p 41. Asimov's original robot came into fictive being in "Strange Playfellow" (renamed "Robbie"), a story that made its debut in the September 1940 issue of Super Science Stories. Tik-Tok predated Robbie by some twenty-five-plus years, having played major roles in two of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, Ozma of Oz (1907) and Tik-Tok of Oz (1914). Tik-Tok and Robbie both derive from the doll/toy trend in automata manufacture and are, in a sense, mechanical dolls grown technological and tall.

3. Ibid, p 41. "Robbie" is heavily anthologized. It can always be located in the Asimov collection, I, Robot, available in a variety of paperback and hardback editions.

4. Ibid, p 41.

5. This dog-tag varies. In Ozma of Oz, Tik-Tok's ID is printed on a card suspended from a copper peg in the back of his neck. However inconsistently attached, the information provided is the same and will be subsequently discussed.

6. See John Cohen, Human Robots in Myth and Science, George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1966. A scholarly survey of the robot from its inception in antiquity.

7. Karel Čapek, drawing upon the Czeckoslovakian "robota," is generally credited with coining the word "robot" in his 1921 play, R.U.R. John Cohen quotes the etymology: "Robot is akin to the Gothic 'arbi'=inheritance, and also to the Gothic 'arbaiths'=labor, toil, trouble, distress. A cognate German word 'Arbeit'=work, and the Old Slavic equivalent is 'robota'; Czeck and Polish 'robota'=servitude or forced labor." (Erick Partridge, Origins, UK 1958, p 458).

8.The electronic all-purpose spaceship brain gone amok in the film 2001.

9. William F. Nolan, ed., The Pseudo-People, US 1965. Introduction.

10. The automaton with moving parts is an evolutionary antecedent of the more complicated robot. Semantic difficulties do cause some obfuscation. For example, a recent article concerning automated industrial equipment was entitled "Russia Buys Robots From Japan."

11. Amongst the various inhabitants of Oz, the question of life status is not at all a simple one. There is a complicated system of biological/social caste based on "origin." Opinions are often formed, and behavior often determined in accordance with this system. One can find transformed human beings, like the Tin Man and Scarecrow, whose means of transformation and new bodies are quite unlike; characters who might be classed "organic inanimates," like Jack Pumpkinhead and the Wooden Sawhorse, who act differently and relate to humans differently; creatures who may be called "inorganic inanimates," like the Glass Cat, who was never alive but crystalline; and a whole assortment of diverse fantasy beings such as nomes (or gnomes), fairies, dragons, talking animals, mythological monsters, witches, royalty with immortality and other magic powers, speaking roses with faces, and sundry zany tribes like the Wheelers, who possess wheels for hands and feet. Suffice it to say that, socially and philosophically, Tik-Tok is on the bottom of the heap.

12. Or without. Remote electronic control has had a significant impact on robotics. A robot body may be manipulated from afar by a human or a computer.

13. A true robot is never fashioned by Nature. Science Fiction does, however, incorporate a variety of non-manmade robots, such as those built by their own kind, and those built by nonhuman (fantasy or extraterrestrial) beings. Both fantasy-based and made-on-other-world models are not subject to the Three Laws.

14. Robert Plank, "The Golem and The Robot," Literature and Psychology, Winter 1965, pp 12-28. Tracks literary treatment of the robot theme from medieval legend.

15. Dr. Plank speculates that the male may be motivated by "a wish to circumvent the sexual act of creation."

16. Animated statues ranged — in fact and in fable — far and wide over the ancient and medieval world. As multicultural phenomena infused with complex and varied religious sentiments, these statues were the precursors of automata, just as automata (in the form of dolls, toys, and striking jacks that adorned clocks) were the forebears of robots.

17. See Mircea Eliade, The Forge and The Crucible, US 1971.

18. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Pelican Books, 1:314.

19. Asimov's Laws exerted substantial sway over the characterization of literary robots after 1940. The overwhelming majority honored this prescription for robot control. Exceptions, however, can be found. Some modern fictional robots are perfectly able to injure or disobey a human being. The Laws are recommendations — human wish given fictive technological form — and are not meant to serve as a criterion for genuine roboticity.

20. A twentieth century man-made robot seeking vengeance on its "parents" would have to undertake mass murder. Chances are he would be destroyed before he could get every one of the production team involved. Before the advent of the Laws, these group-planned robots tended to strike out indiscriminately, symbolically substituting whatever segment of humanity was at hand for the individual "father."

21. He is a depository of such dry data as "the world is round," which he readily offers as an explanation to Private Files who wonders how it is possible for them to have fallen one way down a tube through the center of the Earth, then in reverse.

22. A do-or-die gambling challenge set up by the Nome King, who has changed eleven members of the royal family of Ev into statuettes. Dorothy, as well as each of her companions, must try to pick these eleven out of a staggering number of bric-a-brac. Unbeknownst to the contestants, the eleven are color-coded. Success changes those correctly chosen back to their original form. Failure (the using up of allotted guesses) changes the player into another figurine. Tik-Tok, strained to his limits, runs down before he can make all his tries. Re-wound, he loses anyway and becomes a golden ornament, later returned to his original self.

23. Surmise based on the negative evidence that nowhere are we informed that Tik-Tok reads.

24. An illustration of Tik-Tok's remarkable objectivity. The Nome King despises the mechanical man and has attempted to "assassinate" him more than once. A non-robotic mentality justifies the invasion. Princess Ozma gives the go-ahead on the somewhat soft ground that the ruler of the nomes bought his prisoners from King Ev in exchange for providing Ev with long life and reneged because King Ev, consumed by remorse immediately after the sale, committed suicide.

25. Here, the Woodman is using his organic heart to document the fact that he's alive, hence "better" than Tik-Tok. Elsewhere, with metallic heart, some core life functions are lost, like the ability to love.

26. The age-old contention is that only God, never man, can make a soul. Thus, all man-made beings are soulless.

27. Weight can also be used for total destruction. In Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat, a robot policeman is stopped by the human criminal, who arranges for a three-ton safe to drop on its head.

28. If tri-programmed with the units of action, thought, and speech powered separately, any one component can deenergize before another, so that, as often happens with Tik-Tok, the metal arms and legs may be immobilized while talk and thought continue.

29. There seems to be a correlation between the intensity of activity undertaken by Tik-Tok and the time it takes for him to use up his available energy. Violence, physical fighting, diminishes his power quicker than passivity.

30. Nomes have a mortal fear of eggs. In the presence of eggs, they absolutely fall apart. This horror and terror experienced by the nomes makes complete sense when eggs are taken as the quintessential symbol of organic life.



Over two and a half decades before the Three Laws of Robotics were a glimmer in their originatorís mind, there existed, in fiction, a robot who represented a perfect embodiment of these laws. His name was Tik-Tok and he appeared, faithful guardian that he was, nearly always at the side of his human, the little girl Dorothy, who adventured her way through the fantastic land of Oz in the books by L. Frank Baum. It comes as no surprise, then, that Isaac Asimov admits to first having "a dim notion" of the Three Laws from his initial robot story, which centers on the relationship between a little girl, Gloria (roughly the age of Dorothy), and her robot, a nursemaid/playmate called Robbie. In his link between the dead past and unfolding future of robots, Tik-Tok exists as a mongrel. His body retains the unique and carefully wrought characteristics of the hand-crafted automaton in his nonfunctional hat, his moustache, and his spats (all shown in the Oz illustrations) as well as his special, long-lasting copper. Yet Tik-Tok does not emerge from the workshop of an individual artisan but rather from the factory. In addition, like the automata of old, Tik-Tok needs people for continued activation. In the manner of mechanical toys or clockwork dolls, he comes with a set of instructions. And yet, though human-powered, Tik-Tok presages the trend to electrical power, for when he begins to think, "at once flashes of light begin to show at the top of his head." The Three Laws of Robotics, all of which hold the welfare of the human sacred, almost guarantee friendship between humans and lawful robots. In Dorothy’s social introduction of the mechanical man ("and this gentleman is a machine named ‘Tik-Tok’") and the Shaggy Man’s introduction ("This is Tik-Tok, the Clockwork Man, who works better than some people"), the respect of the human for the amicable, controlled robot is equally apparent.

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