When the Robots Came to Leeds

  • Heritage volunteer and guest blogger Tony Scaife looks back to 1920s Leeds, when the new word ‘robot’ had a somewhat different meaning…

The robot army arrived in Leeds on Friday 16 March 1928. Readers will have to judge for themselves whether Councillor Turtington and the other members of the Leeds Highways Committee were prescient, deluded or duped when they invited the robots at their meeting on 12 December 1927, recommending:

That the proposal of the Watch Committee to install electric traffic signals at the junction of Bond Street and Park Row be approved, subject to the position being satisfactory … and an undertaking to remove same on request of this committee”

Various attempts at road traffic control signals had been made from the 1860s onwards, including a gas-operated system outside the Houses of Parliament that exploded, sadly killing a policeman. Manually-controlled, three-colour electric lamps had appeared by 1914, but Wolverhampton in 1927 was the first town to install an automatic system, with Leeds being next the following year.

For a Highways Committee, whose monthly minutes throughout the period record in boring detail the purchase of sand, gravel and aggregate for road maintenance, there is no mention of where and at what cost Leeds’ first traffic lights were obtained. It may have been locally, since Kelly’s Directory for 1927 lists eight local electrical lamp manufactures.

Be that as it may, on 16 March 1928, life in Leeds was getting back to normal after recent heavy snow had disrupted supplies reaching the market (though, incidentally, it was reported that fresh rabbit was still hard to find). Perhaps passers-by took comfort from the civic order personified by the policeman magisterially conducting the traffic:

Policeman conducting Leeds traffic. Image from Leodis

These were troubling times with abundant evidence, for those so inclined, to see the established order crumbling. An Admiral and three other senior officers had been relieved of their duties following a protracted argument aboard the Royal Navy’s battleship, Royal Oak, anchored in Valletta Harbour, Malta. Closer to home, there was the ongoing enquiry into the furious row between Chief Constable of St Helen’s and his Watch Committee over accusations of abusive language, bullying and even the temporary arrest of the Chairman of the Watch Committee – an arrest malevolently timed, it was alleged, so that the civic worthy was carted off to the chokey just as his lunch was being delivered to his own table. It may also be noteworthy, for this blog, that the St Helens’ Chief Constable was also accused of misusing police property, equipment and staff for the repair of private motor cars (see the Yorkshire Evening Post, 16 March 1928).

No such shenanigans marred Leeds civic life on that Friday morning, as an amiable official party, including the Leeds Chief Constable and his deputy, Councillor F. Bentley, the Chairman of the Watch Committee, and other Councillors, took post on the steps of the Philosophical Hall on Park Row. The presence of the worthy assemblage was noted by a reporter and photographer from the Evening Post who had strolled along from their then Bond Street office to record the historic event: “Up to the time of its beginning the usual burly figure of the policeman stood in the centre of the four roads. At the appointed minute the policeman stopped all four streams of traffic and retreated to the footpath. The electrical device came into instant operation” (16 March 1928).

Park Row, 1924. Image from Leodis

With justifiable, though inaccurate, pride the YEP article claims the Leeds traffic lights as a first, and rather smugly acknowledges that Edinburgh will follow suit the following Monday.

As Michael Meadowcroft notes in A History of Modern Leeds, the internal combustion engine was beginning to “exercise the minds of the City Fathers and the whole question of transport by road, rail and eventually air had serious consequences for town planning” (pp. 410-436). Work was to begin on the Ring Road, the redesign of the Headrow, and the establishment of a Leeds/Bradford airport in 1931. The Central Station and Queens Hotel were to also eventually redesigned, and there was even talk of a ship canal linking Leeds and Hull. Even a decade later, photographs record very few cars by modern standards.

Kirkstall Road. Image from Leodis

The City Fathers were aware of the growing motor trade in Leeds and the economic impact of the motor car. Kelly’s Directory 1927 has four pages of garages, taxi, coach and bus companies, including a Reginald Horsley with three garage businesses listed. Similarly, a contemporary edition of the Evening Post offers two pages of car adverts, including new vehicles for £440 and second-hand prices between £80 and £235. A lucky reader might also have won an 11 h.p. Clyno Saloon (value £190) in a lottery-like game promoted by the paper. Although the reader would be required to obey the lighting-up time that day (set for 7.03pm), they would not be required to pass any driving test, since it was not until the Road Traffic Act of 1934 that licenses became compulsory. Mind, it would be a lucky win indeed, since cars were comparatively expensive, judging by the fact that the same newspaper edition carries adverts for new houses in fashionable Harehills for between £440-550 (16 March 1928, pp. 12-14).

Maybe Evening Post readers, that Friday night, were mesmerised by the chance of moving into the motor age and sharing its apparent passport to prosperity (“Business follows in the dust of the motor car”). But, amongst the grandiose promise of a break with the past, some saw threats – for some, even existential threats. At one end of the spectrum was the latest perceived threat to jobs posed by advances in technology; towards the other, the apparently innocuous traffic light became the symbol for a much more pernicious phenomena. Traffic lights were rapidly nicknamed ‘robots’, and remain so-named to this day in South Africa. And robots, as the ultimate manifestation of threatening autonomous technology, were all the rage in 1928.

The Czech playwright Karel Capek is credited with the first use of the word ‘robot’ in his 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Capek acknowledged that he had taken the term from his brother Josef’s conflation of the Czech words robota (drudgery, servitude) and robotnik (peasant or serf).

A scene from the play R.U.R., showing three robots. Image reproduced from Wikipedia

The term spread quickly in science fiction literature. The Monkey (1925) by Maurice Renard and Albert Jean imagined the creation of artificial life by ‘radiogenisis’; the Metal Giants (1926) by Edward Hamilton deals with a computer brain running on atomic power that creates 300-foot tall robots; and S. Fowler Wright’s Automata (1929) has machines doing human jobs until they revolt and wipe out their creators. There were also film treatments of the robot theme: Ben Turpin starred in the comedy short A Clever Dummy released in 1917, whilst an Italian film directed by Andre Deed in 1921, The Mechanical Man, takes us to a more dystopian vision of a malevolently-controlled robot with superhuman strength committing crimes at the behest of its evil inventor – at least until it is successfully battled to mutual destruction by another robot.

The potential for human vs. machine conflict is neatly summarised in this contemporary cartoon:

Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives

Perhaps, however, it is the character of Futura the “Maschinemensch” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (released January 1927) that has lasted longest in the public memory of mechanical paranoia from the 1920s – despite H.G. Wells largely dismissive view that it was “quite the silliest film” full of muddlement about progress (quoted in The Times, 10 February 1927).

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This early slave/master debate shows no sign of resolution. The angular, purposeful, robotic traffic lights have marched on to citywide domination. From that first day, without prior briefing or any kind of instruction, car drivers have fallen under their spell (“When the top disc shows Stop, the leading vehicle pulls up at a white line drawn across the road, and advances immediately on the Go” reported the YEP, ibid. p.15).

Critics even back then, however, argued that the ubiquitous robots had the city at their mercy, bringing chaotic gridlock to swathes of the city. Be that as it may, in the urgent pressure of a daily newsroom we can forgive that first Evening Post report for not exploring fully all the implications of the decision to welcome traffic robots. If newspapers do write the first draft of history, they may not always focus on what later generations come to regard as significant.

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