Fig. A: Elsie seeking the bright light of her charging
station, April 1950. Sign reads “Machina Speculatrix
(Testudo)/ Elmer Elsie/ (Habitat — W. England)/
Please Do Not Feed These Machines.” Fig. B: Time-lapse
photo of Elsie allegedly performing in front of a mirror,
enamored with her pilot light — or is she actually
responding to the candlelight used in the time-lapse?
What year do you think this is? 2009? 2001?
Sometime in the 1990s? Certainly no earlier than
The location is Bristol, England. The man is
Dr. W. Grey Walter, a neurophysiologist. His wife,
Vivian, is also a scientist (and helped him build the
robots). They both work at the Burden Neurological
As part of his research into brain cell behavior,
Walter has created these simple, autonomous
robots from analog electronics. And while the influence of these experiments on brain research is
debatable, Walter’s robot experiments would lay the
groundwork for one of the more successful fields of
robotics today (though that ground would remain
fallow for decades).
that could explore the control mechanisms of the
brain. He became intrigued with the idea of creating
a mechanical, goal-seeking animal that could scan
an environment. He thought he could use these
creatures to model simple neurons in the brain and
to study how these neurons interact.
Walter wondered if, instead of it being the sheer
numbers of neurons that led to complex brain
functions, it was the richness of how these neurons
interconnected that led to this emergent complexity.
If he created the simplest machines, with two-neuron-brains (two vacuum tubes), endowed with
a few senses (sight and touch), would he witness
some unforeseen complexity in behavior emerge?
Especially if he had multiple machines interacting?
Pioneer of the EEG
William Grey Walter was born in Kansas City, Mo., in
1910. He was brought up in England, where he attended Westminster School and then King’s College,
Cambridge. In 1939 he got a job at the BNI. Although
he’s best known for his robot experiments in the
40s and 50s, his most significant work was in the
burgeoning field of electroencephalography (EEG).
It was in the course of his work with EEG, and his
growing interest in the postwar science of cybernetics, that Walter became interested in experiments
Walter began work on his first robot sometime in
1948. The prototype was dubbed Elmer, followed
by a more reliable, fuller-featured version, Elsie (the
two names are derived from ELectroMEchanical
Robots, Light Sensitive with Internal and External