-- Chapter 11
"I think", said Neill, "that, instead of seeking adventure among gangsters and wolves, we ought to try to get civilisation going again."
"How ?" asked Robert.
"We should begin with the local town, make ourselves the Borough Council; I could be Mayor, Pyecraft the Town Clerk, and you boys could be the scavengers, and start to clean the streets. Betty there might get the water pumping restarted, and Evelyn might open a hat shop. We might make a trip to the Mint and make our own coinage, and begin a kind of Communism. As Mayor, of course, I'd have to have a good salary, and --"
"I know", said David brightly. "We can start the Leiston Works. All we have to do is to get the engines going and all the lathes and things, and the Works have their own dynamo, so if we join it to the mains wires we can have light at night."
"Very nice", said Neill, "but what exactly will you do when you have all the machines running? What can you make? What we need most is good food, and I can't see you turning out a good square meal on a ten-inch lathe."
"Lathes don't turn square", laughed Gordon. "We might turn a round of mutton."
"I know !" exclaimed Michael. "We can make a robot."
"You can't make a row-boat on a lathe", said Bunny.
"A robot, one of those mechanical men who do things. I once saw one at Olympia, and it could do all sorts of things -- tell you the date of Waterloo, and the square of a number, and things like that."
"That", said Neill, "would be most useful to us. Think what an easy time we should have, reclining in our armchairs, and getting the robot to do all the dirty work of shouting out the date of Henry Vlll's first marriage, or the square root of 20164. But isn't there a danger that it would make us lazy ?"
Michael did not notice the sarcasm of this speech; he was thinking of his robot.
"Gee !" he went on, "we might begin a new race of robots."
"And when we die ?" asked Pyecraft.
"They could go on making their own robots."
"No", said Pyecraft, "no, Michael, that's only a dream. Even if you had the skill to make a robot it would only do what you, with your brain, had planned it to do. A mechanical thing can never be original."
"I don't see it", said Michael. "Did you see the mechanical feeding-machine in Charlie
Chaplin's Modern Times? It started out as a mechanical thing but it ended up by doing original things. My idea is that machinery has a kind of originality of its own."
"How did you come by that idea ?" asked Pyecraft.
"It came to me one day when I was watching Neill in his workshop. I noticed that everything he tried to make round in the lathe turned out to be oval."
"There is something in what Michael says", put in Neill hastily. "There is a perversity about metal that all the skill in the world cannot overcome. It steels itself against --"
"Draw it mild", smiled Gordon, but his pun was lost on an audience that did not know the grades of steel.
"Let's stop gassing", said Robert, "and get on with this robot idea. We'll have to begin by making drawings, and I votes we all make a design and then we'll let Neill choose the best one. "
So they made for the drawing-office of the Works, and they sat at tables with blue prints before them, and there was silence save for an occasional unprintable expletive from Michael. Pyecraft went to sleep, and Neill walked round giving advice and encouragement.
"Fine", he said, looking over David's shoulder. "Excellent, but isn't his nose on the long side ? "
"That isn't his nose", grunted David; "that's the vacuum cleaner."
"I beg your pardon !" said Neill. "It's a good idea to put him on skis, though; we get snow in Leiston about once in ten years."
"They aren't skis", growled David; "they are caterpillar wheels, and, for heaven's sake, move away; you put me off", and so Neill moved on to Gordon.
"Looks good, Gordon. Policeman robot, isn't it ?"
"How do you make that out ?"
"His long arms."
"What do you mean ?"
"The long arm of the law", said Neill, and, dodging Gordon's inkpot, he moved on to Bunny.
"What's the idea of all these hands, Bunny ? "
"So's he can fire six revolvers, three machine-guns, two howitzers at once."
"Yes, that makes eleven hands. Why the twelfth ?"
"To chuck bombs with, silly", said Bunny, with undisguised scorn.
Jean collected the drawings and laid them in a pile in front of Neill. He seemed to have some difficulty in awarding the first prize. Finally he stood up, looked at a design in his hands, coughed, and began:
"Ladies and gentlemen, mine has been a Herculean task. It has been most difficult to judge between so many excellent designs, but finally I have selected the one I now hold in my hands. I have chosen it on the following grounds: it has grace; it has movement; it has poise and inherent strength. It is my ideal robot, and I have much pleasure in declaring" -- here he peered at the signature -- "Evelyn Williams as the winner."
After the half-hearted cheering had died down Evelyn got up, and her eyes, instead of showing pleasure, showed anger.
"I wasn't competing", she said. "I couldn't do it, so I made a sketch of Neill instead."
When order was restored Neill awarded the prize to Michael, but he suggested that Michael might generously incorporate in his design some of the features from the designs of the others, and this he agreed to do.
"The first thing to do", said David, wiping his nose on the sleeve of a pair of overalls originally made for a man six feet four, "is to go to the pattern shop and make patterns in wood, and then we cast them in metal."
They made quite good patterns, and then came the question of the casting. Neill was made foreman moulder because he had had experience of casting ... he said he had once cast a silver bee in plaster of Paris ... After all the casting boxes had been ruined, they decided to make the robots out of sheet brass, 10 S.W.G., and ... but it would be dull to tell of all the mechanical processes. Suffice it to say that one fine morning Michael's robot was put on a truck and taken to the centre of the hockey-field. The great moment had arrived. Michael was all nerves.
"Don't worry", said Pyecraft, "I'm sure the robot will stand the test."
"So do I", said Michael with a tremor in his voice, "only I wish I knew where I left that magneto spanner. I think I took it out, but I'm not sure."
"Let's get on with it", said Robert.
"Oke", said Michael, "I'll explain how it works. If I press this button A it will walk. When I press button B --"
"We know", cried Jean and Betty in chorus; "you get your tuppence back."
Michael looked at them witheringly, and then went on. "If I press button B it should talk."
"Better start with B", said David, "for if you press A it may walk and never stop."
"But", said Evelyn", if you press button B it may go on talking and never stop."
"The word robot is masculine", said Robert severely. "Go on, Michael, make it B."
Michael pressed button B. There was a horrible noise like a 1910 Ford getting into gear, and the robot's mouth began to open and shut like a rat-trap. Michael adjusted something with a screwdriver, and the jaws began to work with a rapidity that gave a noise like a machine-gun. However, Michael did some more adjusting, and the jaws slowed down. But it made no attempt to speak.
"Maybe it's been a well-brought-up robot", said Evelyn, "trained to speak only when spoken to. We should ask it a question."
"What time is it ?" asked Bunny.
The eyes began to flicker. Red, green, and blue lights changed rapidly, and then all the mechanical eyes directed themselves on Bunny.
"I do believe it is going to answer", said David. "Ask it again, Bunny."
"What time is it ?" repeated Bunny.
There was a scrunch of gears.
"Grrrrrr !" said the robot. Then it began slowly in a mechanical voice: "One-two-three-four-five-six-" Here it suddenly went into rapid tempo: "87398676329657489786553427645. "
Neill looked at his watch.
"I didn't know it was so late", he said. "I'm slow."
"Grrrrrr", said the robot, and something cracked inside.
Michael began to do things to it with a screwdriver.
While Michael was so engaged Pyecraft asked Robert what the other buttons were for.
"Button C makes it dance to a gram. record inside its belly. D -- I forget what D is."
"D", said Gordon, "is the maths one. You give it a problem and it gives you the answer."
"Let's try that one", said Neill, and, when Michael had withdrawn himself from the innards of the robot, he pressed button D.
"Now", he said, "give it a problem."
"I'll give it one", said Pyecraft. "If the dollar stands at 4.7 to the £ how many dollars should I get for £56 10s. ?"
The answer came promptly:
"56 tons, 16 cwts., 3 quarters."
"Marvellous !" cried Neill. "Wonderful! He might have been educated at Summerhill."
"Was the answer right ?" asked Evelyn.
"I don't think so", said Michael doubtfully, but half a minute", and he made for the robot with a spanner. Then something happened. The lost magneto spanner must have made a short circuit, for every button seemed suddenly to go into action at once. It began to run in circles under the influence of button A, then, suddenly, it would stop and button C would take control. The record began to play and the robot did a dance. Then buttons B and D appeared to have a joint control, and it stood and shouted out numbers and mathematical formulae. Then A came into action again and the robot kicked Pyecraft in the seat of the pants, and they all ran for the house. The robot kept making wider circles, and then it crashed into a tree. There was a dying creak of gears, and the robot lay still.
They talked during lunch.
"I think it was rotten the way Neill made fun all the time", said Michael. "After all, I couldn't help the bally wires getting short circuited."
"But", protested Neill, "I didn't make it funny. The thing is a scream in itself."
"It's just crackers. I grant that it is cleverly made; I admit that your mechanical genius is wonderful, Michael, but my point is this: you've made the wrong robot."
"What do you mean ?"
"We don't want a robot to tell us the time or tell us lies about arithmetic. We can easily make our own mistakes in arithmetic. Nor do I want a robot that dances to hot rhythm. One of the major advantages of this stone age is that it has killed the crooner and the saxophone player. Why not make a robot that is useful ?"
"All right", said Robert. "What sort of a robot would please you ?"
"Well", said Neill, "I want a robot that combines the qualities of the domestic servant with the qualities of the cultured person." "Meaning which ?"
"I want to see a robot that makes my beds cooks the breakfast, washes up, sweeps the floor, and so on. Then, in the evening, I press a button and it comes in and plays me a Chopin Etude, or, even better, makes itself into a whole orchestra. It might have an extra pressbutton that would make it paint me a modern picture in oils in the Picasso or Matisse style."
"Neill is right", said Pyecraft, "right for him, but wrong for us. It amounts to this, that each one of us should have his own robot. Let Neill have his piano-playing robot, but, I say, let Bunny have his gangster robot. For my part my requirements are modest: all I want is a robot that will sing me a lullaby at reasonable intervals during the day."
So the united genius of the children went into making a robot for each person, and a few weeks later each went about with his or her mechanical companion. There were unfortunate shortcomings. Pyecraft's robot certainly sang lullabies, but its voice was so harsh and loud that poor Pyecraft was kept awake all day. He solved the problem with the aid of a sledge hammer. Neill's robot was musical, and played the piano delightfully, but for some obscure reason it would not play Chopin. It played Bach and Bach only, and if there was any music that made Neill bad tempered it was the music of Bach. And in its domestic work it was not completely reliable, for it sometimes washed up the dishes before they had been carried in to the dining-room, and Neill hated to see his bacon and egg being scrubbed vigorously in the sink with Vim. The boys tried to retune it, and then it took to playing Bach on the butter, and smearing the piano keys with dripping. David had to cut out the art circuit, for the robot seemed to think that his, David's, face was a canvas so that on some days David looked like a camouflaged sausage.
The other robots were not perfect either. Bunny's gangster was a dreadful nuisance. Bunny was careful only to give it blank cartridges, but, as the others complained, it was no fun to be wakened up at three in the morning by a robot stumping along the passage shouting: "Stick 'em up!" and firing blank cartridges. And then Gordon's robot, a mathematical prodigy, kept writing equations and drawing diagrams on all the walls, a harmless creature but a tiresome one. Evelyn's robot, or perhaps we should say robotess, was one of the best behaved in the house. It spent hours trying on dresses and using lipstick, and then it had an epidemic of kissing. It kissed everyone and everything including Chad's statue.
"Puzzling", said Pyeeraft, looking at Evelyn keenly. "I make the guess that a robot only does what it has seen humans doing." And Evelyn blushed deeply and glanced at David who blushed still more deeply.
One big drawback about the robots was that they had always to be having their batteries recharged. Betty's robot, which did the cooking, had an awkward habit of running out of electric juice when it was lifting a pot off the Aga. Many a dinner was ruined thus. Jean's robot was a comedian, for Jean was a bit of a comic herself, and had designed a two-voiced robot which she christened Clapham and Dwyer (buttons A and B). But Jean had also a religious strain in her, and had arranged that button C should provide a sermon if necessary. Sometimes in the dark she pressed the wrong buttons and then the conversation was something like this.
"Last night I came in very late, and my wife said --"
"Woe unto you, winebibber and gnasher of teeth. Verily, verily, I say unto you --"
"Don't tell me. The answer is a lemon. Talking of fruit, why is a cheese like a -- ?"
"High mountain, and he looked down and saw --"
"The girl had dropped her garter."
"O thou weak-kneed generation ... " and so it went on. It shocked Jean, but she really seemed to get the wrong buttons more often than was necessary.
Robert's robot was the gardener. It could fill a barrow and wheel it. It could plough and plant, and Robert was very proud of it. But, if anything, it was over enthusiastic; and not content with planting potatoes in the hockeyfield, it insisted on trying to raise cabbages on the concrete platform in front of the garage. Something went wrong with it one day, and Robert took it into Neill's workshop to repair it. The dinner gong went, and he left it while he dined. When he returned he found that it had planted all the screw drivers in the bench and was busily watering them. And it had an incurable habit of planting onions one day, and on the following days planting successively, in the same patch, lettuces, wallflowers, artichokes and turnips. It tried to plant Betty one day, and, after that, Robert was compelled by public opinion to cut out the main lead from the battery when the robot was not working under his direction.
Michael's robot was a pure luxury.
"I designed one that would do no work", he said. "I call him Colonel Blimp."
Colonel Blimp was in a manner the most interesting of the lot. He strutted around saying: "Egad, sir, in my young days ..." He reclined in a club armchair and talked by the hour about shootin' and huntin' and The Empiah.
Said Neill one night: "I suddenly have an idea about these robots. My theory is this, that each of us has made a robot that expresses his unconscious mind. Take Michael there. He is a Bolshie, but he makes a Blimp. Why ? Because Colonel Blimp is the unexpressed part of Michael, just as the gangster is the unexpressed part of Bunny."
"How is mine my unconscious ?" asked David, and Neill had to confess he did not know. For David's robot was a highly complicated figure. It was a Labour Leader, and a strong friendship sprang up between it and Colonel Blimp. They had so very much in common --a love of armchairs, of luxury, and, most salient of all, of talking. David had given it a United Front reinforced with steel bars across the stomach, but, in its swelling speeches, it always broke its United front, much to Colonel Blimp delight. Sometimes when a short circuit took place it went on for hours shouting: "Moscow Cold! Moscow Gold!" Neill said it was the most natural of all the robots, and suggested to David that it should be given a title, so David called it Sir Ro Bo Pink. It had very strong opinions on the wickedness of strikes, and the sight of a red flag made it homicidal. But it had a good voice, and, of an evening, the boys would get Colonel Blimp and Sir Ro Bo to sing as duets: Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory. Michael tried to adjust the mechanism so that the two would sing The International, but the only result was that they had to be taken to the workshop to have their big ends repaired.
Robert, whose hobby was printing, had made his robot a printer. It ran the Summerhill Daily Worker, but on the complaint of Betty and Evelyn, a censor had to be appointed, and Pyecraft was given the job. Often the Worker appeared as four pages all blacked out. So Robert lost heart, and, redesigning the circuit, he converted his printer into a personal valet. He brushed Robert's clothes in the morning, folded them at night, tied his ties, and cleaned his shoes. Neill suggested that they might all have his services, and Robert agreed to share him. But the result was not a great success, for he kept trying to put Pyecraft's trousers on Jean, and, worse still, Jean's stockings on Pyecraft. He seemed to have a fixed idea that Michael's face was a boot, and Michael got very tired of continually spitting out chunks of Nugget Polish. So Robert had to change the circuit again, and his robot became a fireman, and he was a fireman until Neill, tired of having all his cigarettes hosed out when he lit them, shoved him in the duck pond, and Robert said it was too big a job to clean the rust out of the works.
After that the robot craze wore off. The children got tired of the constant attention necessary -- the oiling, charging batteries, etc., and a day came when the robots lay out in the grounds and rusted. Neill set up Colonel Blimp so that he could watch Chad's stance. Before his battery ran out the Colonel said some unprintable things about commoners who dare to play golf.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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Chapter 11 Of 'The Last Man Alive' By A.S. Neill. This page is copyrighted.