Robotic sports are the closest most geeks will ever come to real combat. Battling robots, in particular, are a spawn of San Francisco street guerilla theater, not MIT. Several relatively successful cable television series, including Robot Wars and Battlebots, have come from these street events. Actually Robot Wars debuted in Britain as a television series, and has since then wound up becoming an across Europe phenomenon.
It all started in 1978. Survival Research Laboratories, San Francisco performance artist Mark Pauline’s group, staged their first robot gladiator street installation. According to Survival Research Lab’s website, “since its inception, SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product, or warfare.”
SRL’s street installation robot contructions were a dangerous bunch armed with buzzsaws, torches, gripping pincers, clamping mouths, and more. And the sidewalk audiences loved it. So did Marc Thorpe, a former special effects wiz at George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic Company and toy creator at LucasToys.
Enthused, Thorpe went home and constructed his first robot gladiator from another invention that he was working on: a radio controlled vacuum cleaner. He saw bigger and better things for these jerry-rigged armed and dangerous robot warriors than street art.
Financed by music business entrepreneur Steve Plotnicki, Thorpe began staging come-one-come-all Robot War events in venues around the Bay Area, and once again the audiences loved it. Thorpe and Plotnicki then began to pitch “Robot Wars” as a television series to various networks and syndicators. In 1998, they sold the series to Channel 5 in Britain, and the Brits loved it! At this point, partners Thorpe and Plotnicki began to feud and a legal battle ensued.
In 1999, an American version of Robot Wars, Battlebots, debuted on Comedy Central cable network. This was Thorpe’s version produced by his friend, Trey Roski. Battlebots lasted until 2002. Robot Wars lasted in the UK until 2004.
However, the Fighting Robot Association, spawned from the Robot Wars television show, lives on. Hobbyists and hobbyist organizations across Europe are growing as are the number of public events.
Mark Pauline and Survival Research Laboratories also live on, “producing the most dangerous shows on earth.”
As for Marc Thorpe, in recent years, he’s collaborated with master video game designer Will Wright (The Sims and Spore) on a variety of television projects.
For more about robotic sports and its personalities, read Brad Stone’s book, “Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports.”
“Technical knockouts”, Kera Bolonik, San Francisco Chronicle, URL: (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/03/16/RV187599.DTL&type=printable)
“Machine melee”, Brian Doherty, Reason, URL: (http://www.reason.com/news/show/28832.html)