Robotic lawnmowers are fairly mainstream these days, even if they don’t have much market share yet. But they’ve been a long time coming. We’ve been promised solar-powered semi-autonomous lawnmowers for decades. This American comic strip from 1959 predicted the rise of these machines, but also pointed at the problem with its illustration: Many people are hesitant to buy a contraption with sharp blades driving around by itself on their lawn.
The 28 June 1959 edition of Arthur Radebaugh’s syndicated comic strip Closer Than We Think predicted that solar lawnmowers were just around the corner. The biggest hurdle, of course, was figuring out how to make it “see” and not let it grind up any dogs or kids who might be playing in the yard.
The comic uses the term “electric eye,” a common term in the 1950s to describe electronic sensors. In fact, the term electric eye is at least as old as 1924, used to describe sensors on a futuristic, remote-controlled plane that was supposed to be used in war.
From the 1959 comic strip:
A completely automatic, solar-powered lawnmower is already in the advanced research stage. Moto-Mower engineers figure on controlling it with a roll of perforated tape, like a business machine computer, and powering it with stored-up sunrays.
When grass reaches cutting height, and electric eye will impel the mower to trundle out of its storage box, follow a precise cutting pattern, adjust to moisture and obstacles, dispose of grass clippings, return to storage, and finally, shut itself off.
The mower will be easily adjustable so that it can dispense fertiliser or plough snow.
Eagle-eyed fans of the Closer Than We Think comic strip might notice something familiar in the upper left-hand corner of the illustration. Yep, that looks an awful lot like the “follow-the-sun” house from 1959. In fact, the follow-the-sun house was published on 2 May 1959, just a couple of months earlier than the solar lawnmower.
Autonomous robots, such as the robotic pack mules tested by US forces to help carry supplies on the battlefield, are still largely the realm of the military. But the war always comes home, as we’ve seen in countless examples of the military-civilian tech pipeline, from drones to border security. And before we fully embrace robotic lawnmowers, they’ll probably have to be perfected by the military for one application or another.
But the military doesn’t seem too concerned with mowing lawns just yet. They seem more interested in disposing of other kinds of organic material, like with their idea for EATR, the Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot that many speculated was supposed to grind up corpses, making war environmentally friendly.
But I suppose that brings us back to square one...
Run, Fido, run!