Sunday, April 29, 2012

Everyone Needs a Hero

Alongside the personal rocket-pack, the household robot is one of the most eagerly anticipated accessories of Tomorrow. From Robby to Rosy, no bright future is complete without loyal robots tending to the chores and home maintenance; indeed, it's usually presented as being the pinnacle achievement of these far-flung societies. 

Still, our imagination always exceeds our technology, and we have not yet found a way to program the stoic professionalism of a majordomo onto a silicon chip. However, that doesn't stop us from trying.

In the 1980's, an electronics firm known as the Heath Company had found success manufacturing "Heathkit" do-it-yourself computers. By 1982, the Heathkit brand had expanded to include robotics. Known as HERO (an acronym for the Heathkit Educational Robot), the earliest models resembled little photocopiers on wheels. They were equipped with numerous sensors, a single mechanical arm, and 4 kilobytes of memory stored on tape-cassette. Through the use of a keypad in its "head," the HERO could perform simple tasks and even carry drinks.

The HERO was later followed by the smaller, more streamlined HERO Jr. This incarnation was designed with greater mass-market appeal and took cues from R2-D2 and other cute lil' robots from fiction. While Junior had less memory than its forebear, it did come equipped with a speech synthesizer that produced a voice that could be adjusted to the tastes of its owner. It could remember and repeat its owner's name, and then entertain them with pre-programmed poems, songs, and nursery rhymes. It also could patrol the home as a "guard" and remotely activate security systems if it detected intruders. Additional program cartridges were available to further broaden Junior's abilities.

Unfortunately, sales of the HERO Jr. and its successor (the bombastic HERO 2000), were not enough to sustain the Heath Company. Changes in computer technology and marketing had made the manufacture of kits a non-viable source of revenue. The Heath Company eventually folded in 1992, and was tossed back and forth by various investor groups. The once prominent company was a forgotten figure in the world of computing, and among its achievements, only its role in the nascent world of household robotics endured. 

 Recently, a new development has emerged from the ashes. Calling itself Heathkit Educational Systems, this company has partnered with a Canadian corporation called White Box Robotics. Their first major project is the most advanced HERO to date; a HERO for the 21st century. Perhaps believing that their creation needed a more manly name, they named the thing the HE-RObot. This model comes equipped with Windows XP, a web cam, USB port, wireless networking, and speech recognition software allowing for a unique degree of interactivity with its owners and its environment.  Heathkit and White Box hope to have the HE-RObot available for purchase sometime in 2012, all for a mere $8000. 

Be the first one on your block. 

Would you like to know more?
-Take a look at the HERO line here
-Visit Heathkit Education Systems official site
-Visit White Box Robotics official site

No Evil Can Defeat Our Combined Force!

Monday, April 02, 2012

Fire and Brimstone or the Rocket's Red Glare?

1942 was a breakthrough year for Jack Whiteside Parsons, an ambitious, brilliant, and mustachioed chemist hailing from California. Parsons came from a dysfunctional family and had little success in school, and yet (perhaps inspired by his love of pulp science-fiction magazines) he and a group of friends went on to found the now-famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory and win a contract with the U.S military. Doggedly searching for a stable solid fuel for rockets, Parsons finally came across potassium perchlorate. His discovery would allow for the development of superior rocket technology and ultimately lead to man's exploration of space. Besides his passion for chemistry and engineering, Parsons had another major interest. That same year, he was inducted into the Ordo Templi Orientis (or the O.T.O.); a brotherhood of black magic founded by none other than the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. It was Crowley himself who oversaw the initiation and placed Parsons as the head of the California branch.

So, all in all, it was definitely a memorable time.

Parsons was a follower of Thelema, an elaborate mish-mash of arcane practices that Crowley had cribbed from archaic sects from around the world. Parsons fiercely believed that these mystic rituals were components of the same forces he observed as a scientist, and as the leader of the Californian O.T.O. lodge he took his duties seriously (even collecting dues from the other would-be-wizards). His esoteric ideas irked his colleagues and threatened his military employers. In spite of the valuable discoveries he had made, he was bought out of his own company in 1944.

It was around this time that Parsons had accumulated a gang of eccentrics living in his large Pasadena house (known as the Parsonage). The ranks of this motley crew included Robert Cornog (a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project), cartographer Marjorie Cameron, and L. Ron Hubbard, a hack writer with sinister ambitions. The group endured thanks to a mutual interest in science, science-fiction, and libertarianism. Parsons became especially friendly with Hubbard, and, in 1946, included him in an astounding plan to bring about a new age for mankind.

Drawing inspiration from Aleister Crowley's writings (and from some favorite pulp sci-fi stories) Parsons became convinced that the world was under the malign influence of a force called "Horus" that would eventually lead to "power governments, war, homosexuality, infantilism, and schizophrenia." As is the pattern with these things, a messianic figure was called for, and Parsons decided to perform a magical ritual called "Babalon Working" that would create a divine "Moonchild." He was to be the father, and Marjorie Cameron was to be the mother. Hubbard was appointed the official stenographer and took notes while observing the ordeal.

It didn't work.

Parson's life deteriorated after that. He tried to start a boat rental enterprise with Hubbard, only to have Hubbard steal the boat, the start-up funds, and Parson's off-and-on-again girlfriend Sarah Northrup. The coast guard intervened, but Parson was ashamed by the experience. He sold the Parsonage and resigned from the O.T.O. Hubbard, meanwhile, happily went off to found Scientology and ruin thousands of lives.

Parsons died in 1952, after being caught in an explosion of highly unstable mercury fulminate in his private laboratory. He had been reduced to making explosives for Hollywood special effects companies and was in a rush to complete a contract. Despite his crucial contributions to the world of rocketry and space travel, Parsons is a fairly obscure figure today, known mainly to modern Thelema cultists and enthusiasts of the paranormal. He received a rare posthumous tribute when a moon crater was named in his honor.

Would you like to know more?
-Feeling ambitious? Read Parsons' own Book of Babalon