Thursday, November 18, 2010

Prototype Television Robot (Yonezawa/1960s/Japan/9.5 inches)

Toys aren't born, they're made. And before they can be made, they go through stages of development that begin with sketches and model-making and culminate in the creation of a prototype. If the stars align properly -- i.e., the prototype works correctly, people like the design, and production isn't too costly -- the prototype is transformed into a toy.

But sometimes a toy never gets that far. Sometimes, something about the robot prevents it from making it out of the pre-production stage and on to the toy shelf. The toy industry is full of "what ifs" and "also rans," robots that started as really good ideas but, for whatever reason, never quite made the cut.

And while most of these prototypes were dismantled and turned into scrap, some survived. They remained in dark factory corners, or sitting on shelves in forgotten closets. They dodged the ravages of time and neglect until finally, finally, intrepid collectors dragged them into the light. And now, decades later, they survive as giant curiosities that hint at all the wonderful toys that, had fate not dipped and dived in the wrong direction, might be sitting on our shelves today.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of one such toy.

Presenting the prototype for a never-produced Television Robot by the company Yonezawa. Please bask in its glory for as much time as you'd like. I'm happy to wait.

I know, I know. It doesn't look like much. Just two legs, feet, a gear box, a pair of arms, and that big, round space scene on the front of its chest. But that's part of its charm. It's a prototype. For a toy that was never produced. Of course it's not going to look like a super model. But I would argue that a prototype is even cooler when you can tell that it's a prototype.

Prototypes demonstrate the toy-making process, providing a glimpse into the often hidden world of toy development. They're stages in the act of creation, and, in my opinion, are most interesting when they illustrate these stages. This means they're often rough around the edges compared to a finished toy, but that's the point.

And it gets even cooler. These prototypes are one-of-a-kind, hand-made toys. To use an art analogy, these are the original paintings and pencil sketches, while the toys themselves are just machine-made prints. As such, I consider them wonderful works of mechanical art.

So... What exactly are we looking at? Allow me to break it all down.

This is a concept for a walking Television robot. As far as we can tell, the toy walks forward with swinging arms and a spinning antenna in what would have been its head. At the same time, the disk on its chest rotates about 30% before stopping. Then a bulb lights up, illuminating the scene, which would be visible through a TV window on the robot's chest. After a few seconds, the whole process starts all over again.

It sounds fairly basic, but the toy included one feature that was positively revolutionary -- at least, it would have been if the robot had ever made it into production: Bump-And-Go action.

Bump-and-go action allows a toy to slam into a wall, spin around, and go in another direction. It's common on skirted robots and many space cars, tractors, tanks -- pretty much anything that rolls. However, no one in the hobby had ever seen it on a walking robot until this prototype surfaced.

So how's it work? The robot walks forward until it bumps into a wall. This pushes in a tab on the toy's left foot, which engages a mechanism that causes the wheels in its feet to only roll backwards for a set period of time. As the robot continues to try to walk forward -- the right leg still works properly -- it ends up spinning itself in a circle. By the time it's facing away from the wall, the mechanism in the left foot has disengaged, allowing the wheels in the foot to roll forward again. This, in turn, permits the robot to start walking -- until it hits another wall, of course.

It's an elegant solution that would have given the toy so much additional play value. But looking at the inside of the foot, you can see that it's a fairly complicated mechanism that probably added to the toy's production cost. It's sad, but not surprising, that Yonezawa never implemented it in any of their toys.

Now, remember I mentioned that these toys are hand-made? This brings us to one of the prototype's coolest features: The hand-painted space art on the chest disk. As a fan of both toy robots and original science fiction art, I can barely express how cool I think this is. I'm amazed my head hasn't exploded already.

My friend and fellow collector, Donald Conner, pointed out that whoever painted the wonderful scenes of rockets, space stations, and robots on this disk most likely also painted the original artwork for at least some of the litho on other robots. Not only that, there's a great chance he created some box art as well.

That noise you just heard was my head finally going boom.

The scene is painted on a clear piece of round plastic using what look like water colors. It's backed with a piece of thin, translucent paper that helps to diffuse the light from the bulb that illuminates the art. The disk has warped a bit with age, and you can see spots where the paper has pulled away, taking some of the artwork with it. So the whole thing is extremely delicate. Still, it displays wonderfully, delivering a tiny, funky science fiction universe.

I don't really know too much about the Television Robot Prototype's history. It was discovered in Japan, and at some point it made its way onto the Yahoo Japan auction site. A well-known dealer won it for a collector here in the States, and he owned it for a couple years. Recently, he decided to get out of the hobby -- his collection was amazing! -- and he's been selling off his toys over the last couple months. When I saw the prototype on the block, I jumped at it.

When the toy was originally discovered, it was missing its right leg and foot. The funky bump-and-go mechanism was attached to the left foot plate, but the foot plate itself didn't fit perfectly to the foot housing. The toy had no battery box -- there was no way to see what it could really do.

(Photo: John Rigg)

So it was sent to toy collector, and robot-builder extraordinaire John Rigg. The prototype's owner knew that John could find a way to replace the missing parts and provide the toy with power -- but without doing anything that would damage the prototype itself. It was important to preserve this piece of history, so like all conservation and restoration work, anything done to the robot needed to be completely reversible.

John is a legend in the hobby. He's got an amazing collection, which he houses in the Robot Hut, a giant building that he constructed himself on his farm out west. John's also a genius when it comes to electronics, fabrication, and all-around mad science. In his spare time, he likes to customize toy robots for himself and other collectors; he also builds life-size recreations of famous Hollywood robots, like Robby from Forbidden Planet and Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. He's opened and repaired more vintage robots that most of us will ever own, and there's probably no one left alive who knows more about how these toys work. So of course he was the perfect choice to take on the job.

Never let it be said that John doesn't commit 100% to a job! Using the left leg and foot, he created templates for the missing parts, which he then painstakingly fabricated out of tin. He even made molds of the medallions on the side of the legs in order to create copies. The new foot was given a simple walking mechanism, and then attached to the leg. The leg was then put in the body, and careful attention was paid to how it would hook up to the gear box. After all, John wasn't satisfied with having the toy merely stand up -- he wanted it to work, too!

(Photo: John Rigg)

(Photo: John Rigg)

To give it power, he attached a battery box to a piece of metal, which was then screwed into existing holes on the robot's back -- most likely where the actual battery box would have attached. Everything was attached to the toy's motor. Of course it all worked perfectly. (John didn't bother to re-attach the bump-and-go mechanism. It didn't fit right, as I mentioned, so it was decided to leave it off so that it could be displayed next to the robot. It's a choice I wholeheartedly support and agree with.)

(Photo: John Rigg)

Unfortunately, not much else is known about this robot. There's a picture of another prototype piece that might be the toy's body and head, and I'll discuss this in a future post when more information becomes available. But the robot's name, the exact year it was created, where it was found -- it's all still a mystery. Obviously, one that I'd love to solve.

A lot of collectors just aren't into prototypes. Their attitude: "It's just a step in the process, who cares? And an unproduced prototype? A step in the process that didn't even lead anywhere? Pshaw! What's the point, man? You got rooked!"

Of course, a lot of collectors also feel just like I do. They understand that this is an important, rare, and -- yes -- beautiful piece of history, and as such, is valuable to the hobby in ways that can't be understated. It's also an inspiring reminder that for every toy we've seen, there are probably hundreds that never made it out the factory doors. These unproduced toys are flights of fancy for some enthusiastic toy designers, efforts that demonstrate talent, imagination, and technical expertise. They're a direct link to the people who made all these wonderful toys that we collect, and something that very few people have the opportunity to see, much less own.

So I'm kind of freaking out. As a collector, I consider this a grail piece, something I've tried to find for a long time without ever really knowing what I was looking for. And now that I've got it? I couldn't be happier.

Special thanks to John Rigg, whose work with the Television Robot uncovered all of its cool features and ultimately brought it back to life. John's the one who figured out the walking mechanism, and he's graciously allowed me to paraphrase his description, and use his photos, in this post. 

For more information on the prototype, and to see more of John's repair photos, check out this thread on Alphadrome: Yonezawa Prototype.


  1. A unique find indeed. Congrats!

  2. What an insight into a world I know little about but I can certainly understand your appreciation of this piece. The hand painted centre piece is wonderful.

  3. You are back with a vengeance and an amazing post. I absolutely love prototypes, don't have a lot, but love them. So, I totally understand what you are experiencing here. What an awesome find, thanks for sharing it.


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