This short silent movie, called “The Automatic Motorist,” imagines an old-timey car, running boards and all, being driven by a robot chauffeur. And the film came out in 1911, apparently providing the first sustained vision of our robocar future.
Of course, robocars are still in our future, 106 years later.
The clinking, clanking humanoid is much like the Tin Man, but with a temper. And as in our own day, the first roadblock to its progress is the law, which here takes the form of a preening policeman.
Like countless sci-fi movies yet to come, the plot was framed around the available special effects, not the other way around. Like many films that were to follow, it is a nearly point-by-point remake of a movie done five years before, by the same director. The main innovation is the robotic chauffeur.
Some 13 years before this movie came out, Nikola Tesla patented a remote-control system for vehicles—drones of sea and land, as it were. He predicted they would make war so dreadful as to be unthinkable, thus paving the way to universal peace. Two years after the movie’s release, H. G. Wells wrote a rather more pessimistic novel about the coming of nuclear weapons and the collapse of civilization.
The car fulfills a clutch of motorhead fantasies beyond robotic drive. It serves as an airplane, rocket ship, boat, and submarine, going first to London, then the moon, and finally Saturn. At that far flung stop, the car’s occupants—notably a newlywed couple—meet extraterrestrials who look like Munchkins, but with spears.
Hmmm. Could “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), with its Tin Man and Munchkins, have been cribbed from Mr. Booth? No, of course not—when moviemakers steal, they call it homage.