Archive for August 14th, 2013

Cygan, 1950s robot-about-town, can be yours

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

In 1957, Dr. Piero Fiorito, a Turin engineer and aeromodeller, turned his skill with mechanics and radio control circuitry to the construction of humanoid robots. He built three five-foot prototypes out of meccano, adding radio controls to the last two, and then went big with a robot more than eight feet high weighing more than 1,000 pounds. Dr. Fiorito named this handsome giant Cygan. Cygan could walk — or rather roll on wheels under each Frankenstein foot — backwards and forwards, turn right and left, raise his arms, lift things in his pincer hands and crush things in his pincer hands. He could do all of this on command, responding to spoken commands, visual signals and even light rays. His lead acid batteries, also stashed in his honking feet, gave him a 4 1/2 hour operating time.

Cygan made his public debut at the 35th International Samples Fair in Milan April 14th, 1957. His impressive size, smooth moves, shiny aluminum skin, neon green mohawk, pupils, mouth grill and ear antennae made a fine impression amidst the industrial products of many nations. Crowds came to see him walk around and lift his arms on an outdoor stage. His appeal couldn’t be restrained to his country of origin. From Milan he traveled to London where the risqué Windmill Theatre was his first stop.

The Windmill was known for its Revudeville, a vaudeville revue that featured scantily clad ladies dancing, comedians, sketches and most famously, naked ladies standing completely still. The Windmill Theatre was the only theater in London where on-stage nudity was allowed. Manager Vivian van Damm persuaded the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, who at that time was in charge of censoring all London theaters, that if nude statues were not censored, then nude living statues should be allowed too. Thus a “if you move, it’s rude” standard was applied and the nude Windmill Girls struck curious poses in tableaux vivants.

Cygan was perfect for a role in the revuedeville. He could carry two Windmill Girls on his broad shoulders and dance back and forth with a Windmill Girl’s dainty feet on his huge ones. Accompanied by a Windmill Girl entourage, Cygan (now called “Gygan” in the British press for reasons unknown) made a splash at the British Food Fair at London’s Olympia exhibition center in 1958. There is wonderful British Pathé newsreel footage of Cygan at the fair. Dr. Fiorito is in the light grey suit adjusting the thingies in his back. You can see Cygan walk, crush a tin cup and dance with one of his Windmill Girls while the narrator describes his many possible uses from “handling radioactive materials” to being an “obedient companion.”

If that last part sounds suggestive that’s because it is. In addition to having models and dancers draped over him in all his personal appearances, Cygan made the cover of a magazine lifting the skirt of Windmill Girl Sandra Penders. A French magazine dubbed him “the perfect husband” because he could walk, sing, dance, rock his wife for 48 hours without getting tired and if necessary, fend off his mother-in-law. They probably meant “rock” literally, as in rock her bath and forth, but I suspect there’s a little second entendre in there somewhere.

Cygan’s glamour days couldn’t last forever. The Windmill Theatre closed and became a movie theater in 1964. Shortly thereafter, Cygan was bought by a Ford car dealership in Leeds where he was dubbed Mr. Moto and kept as a mascot. His future travels were not so kind to him. He wound up outdoors on an airfield where kids would hang off of him instead of soubrettes. He was no longer functional and the elements soon did a number on him. In the early 2000s, lined with rust and missing his stylish green parts, Cygan appeared again at a salvage yard, painted silver to cover up the rust (poorly), and was then bought by M. Goldstein’s curio shop in Hackney Road, London, where he got replacement antennae and mohawk.

Now he’s part of Christie’s Out of the Ordinary sale which will take place in London on September 5th. The pre-sale estimate is a modest £8,000 – £12,000 ($12,344 – $18,516), but they expect Cygan to sell for more than that. I am crossing all my digits that some technology billionaire will buy him and make him work again. I know he’s not as easy to reboot as George was, but it’s just not right seeing his big ol’ feet strapped to a dolly. Make him dance, oh moneyed geek. Make him dance.

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