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doc atomic

Robots, rockets, and ray guns. In the mid-20th century, space was the place and the future was just around the corner. Today, space toys represent yesterday's vision of tomorrow. They're imaginative, evocative, and just plain fun. Doc Atomic's Attic of Astounding Artifacts feature...

Mechanized Robot (Nomura, 1957)

Some robots are born classic. It's in their gears or something, an unmistakable aura of greatness that overwhelms every spaceship they fly, every mad scientist they rebel against, and every maiden they carry off for morally questionable -- not to mention biologically unfathomable -- activities. They're walking, clicking, blinking superstars of steel, and next to them, all other bits of technology look like wooden clubs.

Well, guess what? Next to Robby the Robot, star of Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy, those other robots look like punks.

Which sort of explains why Mechanized Robot is such a popular piece of tin. He's the closest vintage toy manufacturers could come to appropriating the Hollywood icon's likeness without incurring the wrath of MGM's lawyers. Nonetheless, there's no mistaking the toy's inspiration.

Mechanized Robot features a nice walking mechanism that causes the toy to move in a long, sweeping circle. At the same time, the pistons under his dome bounce and light up, while the translucent plastic in his neck glows a rich green.

This is one of the first vintage robots I ever wanted, but it was also one I never thought I'd have a chance to own. It's not that expensive, relatively speaking, and, because so many were manufactured, they make regular appearances on eBay. But when I started out in the hobby, I imposed strict limits on my spending -- and man-oh-man does that sound so naive! -- and this toy fell decidedly outside those limits. But then a girl I was seeing suddenly dumped me, and my life got a little chaotic. Like many people in similar situations, I turned to therapy.

Okay, okay... Retail therapy.

Within a week, I had my Mechanized Robot, and it was an epiphany. I'd crossed some invisible financial line and a whole new world of toys opened up to me. Toys I couldn't afford, sure, but when you're nursing a broken heart, rent and food and clothing become surprisingly inconsequential. My shelves began filling up at an alarming rate, but with a much higher caliber of toy. (Actually, this was literally the case; at about this time, I began collecting space guns in earnest.)

Mechanized Robot is one of those toys that underwent a few tweaks and changes over its long production run. The very first retail version of the robot was available in silver or black and featured small, knurled knobs on its battery doors. For some unknown reason, the silver color was abandoned, making this variation extremely rare and valuable today. (Rumors abound as to why Nomura chose to stop producing the toy in silver; the most popular says that the company thought Robby the Robot was silver because they'd only seen black and white photos of the character when they began designing the toy. This seems doubtful for reasons that will be made clear in a moment.) About a year later, the final version of the toy, available only in black, replaced the knurled battery door knobs with "butterfly" knobs, which were much easier for children to turn.

However, the toy's most significant evolutionary step happened before it was made available to the public. Nomura first created a salesman's sample of the toy, a kind of prototype, that had significantly shorter legs and used C-cell batteries. This toy had more accurate proportions and did a better job of capturing Robby's unique look. However, the C-cell battery was woefully underpowered, and the toy would run down too quickly. Nomura was forced to retool the robot's legs for the final production run, expanding them to accept D-cells. Needless to say, the earlier, shorter variations are some of the rarest toys in the hobby.

The so-called C-cell Robby was available in both silver and black. This helps dispel the rumor that Nomura thought Robby was supposed to be silver; if this was the case, why produce a black version for salesmen? The most likely reason for producing both colors is that Nomura thought they'd both sell. However, when Forbidden Planet reached theaters, kids probably decided that if they were going to own a slightly abstracted version of their new favorite robot, they were damned sure it would be the right color. Sales on the silver might have struggled, resulting in the company discontinuing it. (This is all speculation, though, and I'm open to other possible reasons for Nomura's dropping the extremely cool silver paint job.)

You know, I actually owned a black C-cell salesman sample Mechanized Robot for a very brief time. It's an extremely long story that due to intergalactic treaties, a top-secret rating, and at least a dozen pinky-swears must remain mostly undisclosed. I do have clearance to say that snagging the toy involved more than a week of stressful back-and-forth phone calls; two double crosses; a suitcase of unmarked bills; one idiot who shall remain nameless; a master tactician known to the world only as "Robot Hunter"; and a hero who will forever be remembered in legend and song as Donald "The Bag Man" Conner.

This was one of those epic deals that inevitably go awry. Like the plot to every Guy Ritchie movie, it ends badly, but not so badly that everyone doesn't walk away with a small piece of the action and most of their body parts intact. So even though I got the toy, I couldn't afford to actually keep it. But everyone came away with a little bit more money than they started with, and, frankly, we've all got a great story to tell.

Not to you, of course. We can only talk about it amongst ourselves, and even then, we have to drink enough alcohol to make sure we forget the conversation ever happened. But trust me, it's a killer story.

Man, I love this robot.


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