These Adorable “Robot Tortoises” Were the Roombas of 1949

Watching our small family of Roombas tidy up has been one of the biggest hits at Gizmodo's Home of the Future this week. They're just! So! Damn! Adorable! But in 1949—long before the sweet little guys were making our floors dust-free—a British neurophysiologist and roboticist named Dr. William Grey Walter invented a mini-gang of early autonomous electronic robots; the Roomba's long-lost, distant great-grand-relatives.

One of the things we've been so taken with is just how much personality our Roombas have; spinning discs that gently kiss whatever's in their way like a charmingly clumsy, half-blind pet.


This was a concept that Walter seemed to embrace; he called them his "tortoises" and named his them Elsie and Elmer (awww!). After explaining about how they function—exactly as if they had a two-cell nervous system—and how they "see"—out of a photoelectric cell that rotates above their metal bodies—Elsie's batteries ebb low she "runs back to her kennel" to recharge.

I hadn't heard of Walter and his brood until we were talking creative bots on Giz a while back, and commenter Dizzimizzie dropped the clip into Kinja. Apart from their (abundant) retro charm, these gizmos represent what was a significant step in the study of brain function and neural connections. Plus—c'mon, they're just delightful.

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"... these gizmos represent what was a significant step in the study of brain function and neural connections."

These devices were covered extensively in magazines like Popular Science; I grew up reading about them in the '50s. This was long pre-microprocessor, and really pre-transistor. They were just analog switches, relays and tubes (for the light-seeking photocell) that could do things like change direction when it hit something, or home in on a light. There was no software and no intelligence; they were very limited devices.