Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Atomic Robot Man (Unknown / 1949 / Japan / 5 inches)

It all started so simply. An eBay auction. A six-inch tin robot. An extra freelance check burning a hole in my wallet. A couple clicks, some bated breath, and victory! Suddenly, after having collected reproduction tin robots for a few months, I was the proud owner of my very first vintage piece: Atomic Robot Man.

I know, you're asking yourself, "Does that freak have two of them? Has he no restraint whatsoever? Is he so depraved that he can't resist the siren call of a beautiful piece of tin?"

Well, yes, no, and, perhaps unsurprisingly to anyone who knows me, absolutely, positively, rapturously yes. But that is not why I've got two Atomic Robot Men. Before I explain what's going on, let's take a general look the A.R.M.

Atomic Robot Man first hit stands in 1949, making it the second toy robot ever produced. (The first is called Lilliput, and was produced in 1938. More on that when I actually manage to get one; it's super expensive, so don't hold your breath.) A.R.M.'s one of the more primitive robots, with a body made from basic, geometric shapes -- boxes and cylinders stacked to roughly approximate a man. His hollow eyes can't see, and yet somehow they seem to take in the world all around him. A.R.M. has a compellingly eerie personality, which might be why this is one of my all-time favorite robots. And even though one or two rank high enough to more-or-less tie, this is the robot I want to buried with.

Atomic Robot Man was available in two basic versions. The first, released in 1949, featured cast metal arms; the second had two-piece tin arms. All versions feature a key-wound pin-walking mechanism. (And no, that's not why I have two; I don't own the tin-armed version. Hold tight, all will be revealed...)

Note the pin-walking mechanism.

My A.R.M. appeared on eBay at the same time as two other robots, an Atom Robot and a Television Spaceman (more on these later). I really wanted the Atomic Robot Man because it was the model for the first reproduction tin robot I ever bought, the one that really got me hooked on the idea of old toys. But looking at those other toys... they were so cool, and I wasn't certain which was the one I really wanted at that moment.

I'd just gotten paid for a rather lengthy magazine article, and the lingering feeling of financial security is the only excuse I can think of for what I did next: I placed a bid on all three. Part of me figured I'd be lucky to win even one, so I didn't worry too much about the potential expense. And now I'm sure you can see where this is going...

Fast forward a week. The auction's about to end and, appropriately, I'm at a science fiction convention, frantically hunting for a computer so I can see which toy I won. Surprisingly (to me -- you readers can guess what comes next), I won all three.

Well, that was the end of my check, but the beginning of my collection. Years later, I can't say I mind. Since the Atomic Robot Man ended first, and arrived in the mail first, it wins the honor of being my first vintage toy. Strangely enough, I can't remember whether the Atom Robot or the Television Spaceman showed up next. Let the record show that they're tied for second.

"Nice story, Doc. Now, you degenerate, care to tell us why you've got two of the little buggers?"

Certainly. First, let's flip them around:

The second Atomic Robot Man, on the right, is known as the Science Fiction A.R.M. on account of the stamp adorning it's back, which says "Souvenir of the New York Science Fiction Conference." This is an extremely rare variation, one of only two three known examples. The first resided until recently in the collection of Bob Lesser (long-time readers will remember Bob from the post of two days ago...). He got it from the great science fiction collector, fan, and publisher Gerry de la Ree. It sold at the Lesser auction to a guy I know. Mine came from a woman who originally obtained it from legendary science fiction and fantasy artist Roy G. Krenkel. (Let's pause to reiterate that: Mine was originally owned by Roy G. Krenkel. If you don't know who he is, I suggest a Google search.)

So what's the big deal? What's the stamp mean? Why were all the known examples originally owned by science fiction bigwigs? Why would it drive me to own a toy I've already got sitting on my shelves? Before we get to that, let's drag out the pain just a bit longer to compare the two toys more directly. Besides the stamp, there were a number of cosmetic differences, including color and lithographic details:

Two A.R.M.s. The SF version is on the right.

Spot the differences in the chest litho. The SF A.R.M. is on the bottom.

Alright, alright. Now, finally: The Stamp.

As it says, the toy was used as a giveaway at the New York Science Fiction Conference, which was held in 1950, from June 1-3, in New York City at the Henry Hudson Hotel. Also known as Hydracon, it was sponsored by the Hydra Club, a group of New York science fiction luminaries that included Frederik Pohl, Lester Del Rey, William Tenn, David Kyle, and many others. (For more on the Hydra Club, see David Kyle's wonderful essay "The Legendary Hydra Club" in Mimosa Magazine: jophan.org/mimosa/m25/kyle.htm.)

As for why the toy only seems to appear in the collections of old-school, hardcore science fiction guys, that can be explained easily enough: They were the ones who not only went to Hydracon, but also had obsessive enough personalities to hold on to the swag they got at the convention.

So... What about my need to own the toy against all better financial judgement? As some may have figured out, I'm a huge science fiction fan. More so, I'm a fan of classic science fiction. I enjoy reading it, I enjoy reading about it. I go out of my way to speak with that authors from that era -- it's only stalking if they catch you hiding in their closets -- so that I can hear first hand what it was like in the days before overt, crass commercialization took hold of science fiction and (nearly) throttled the sense of wonder out of it. I find no fantasy more alluring than the one where I use a time machine to go back to one of these old conventions. (Okay, shooting myself with an Inviso-Ray and then hanging out in Anne Francis' dressing room while she made all those costume changes during the shooting of Forbidden Planet ranks a very, very close second.)

For me, the SF Atomic Robot Man is a tangible link to not only the past, but to a specific time and place in the past. It is that time machine, one that connects me to Roy Krenkel and everyone else at Hydracon. To have the time machine take the shape of one of my favorite robots is icing on the cake.

I'll admit something: I debated selling my first A.R.M. when I won the SF variation. The latter cost me almost three times what I paid for the former, and even acknowledging the sweet deal I got on that first toy (the eBay gods were smiling on me that day), the new one cost me some serious cash. Selling my A.R.M. would inject some vital funds into my bank account.

But I just couldn't do it. As much as I love the SF A.R.M., I don't think anything can compare to the weird, special magic of that first toy, the one that sets up what has since become a major source of pleasure in my life.

So I keep them both on my shelf, side by side, two tin peas in a Swedish glass, metal, and chipboard pod. Can't get much nicer than that, right?


  1. i'm curious as to what this guy is worth. i have the opportunity to bid on one (including box, but that's in fairly poor condition), but can't find it in the toy price guide i have. i know, you'll probably say "what's it worth to you?" but a ballpark estimate would keep me from getting carried away.

  2. For all sorts of reasons, I don't like to discuss actual values on this blog. That said, if you'd like to email me at my direct email address -- there's a link in my profile -- I'll be happy to help you out. I'm online way too often and will probably get back to you quite quickly!

  3. Hi, I wonder if you have info on the red one? when is it from?
    thanks for your blog its hard to find info on these guys :)

  4. The red one was made in the late Nineties by a company called Schylling. Since then, the company has continued to make red ones, with tiny variations. The original toy never came in a rainbow of colors -- only the two colors seen in my photos.


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