"Tortoise" Mobile Robot

"Tortoise" Mobile Robot

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Among the first electronic mobile robots were the experimental machines of neuroscientist W. Grey Walter. Walter studied the brain’s electrical activity at the Burden Neurological Institute (BNI) near Bristol, England. His battery-powered robots were models to test his theory that a minimum number of brain cells can control complex behavior and choice. Soon after World War II, electronic motors and computers made possible such experimental robots that imitated living intelligence. Researchers like Walter then sought to answer a question that still occupies their successors: How close can machines come to human intelligence?
In the late 1940s Walter built his first model animals—simple, slow-moving, tortoise-shaped machines he named Elmer and Elsie. In 1951, Walter enlisted BNI engineer W. J. Warren to build the robot displayed here.
The machines are designed to explore their environment and react to it with two senses—sight and touch. A rotating photoelectric cell, the machine’s “eye,” scans the horizon continuously until it detects an external light. Scanning stops and the machine either moves toward the light source or, if the source is too bright, moves away. An external contact switch, sensitive to touch, causes the machine to retreat if it encounters obstacles. The robots retreat to a recharging station when their batteries were low.
Object Name
date made
ca 1950
place made
United Kingdom
Physical Description
plastic, metal (overall materials)
overall - robot: 10 3/8 in x 6 3/4 in x 10 1/4 in; 26.3525 cm x 17.145 cm x 26.035 cm
overall - cover: 9 1/2 in x 10 1/8 in x 13 7/8 in; 24.13 cm x 25.7175 cm x 35.2425 cm
overall - box: 3 1/8 in x 1 in x 1 1/8 in; 7.9375 cm x 2.54 cm x 2.8575 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Dr. F. W. and J. Merlyn Clutterbuck
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Work and Industry: Mechanical and Civil Engineering
Science & Mathematics
Robots and Automatons
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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