The City Talking: Fashion, Vol. 2
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the second act of cygan the robot

the second act of cygan the robot

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Image by Playful Leeds/Christie's

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that he had thought, “there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.” He was writing about the end of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, when the stock market crash made it seem there was no future; but of course there was a future. There always is.

What Fitzgerald wasn’t writing about was robots – he had enough trouble in his lifetime with motor cars to worry about mechanical men. But in an auctioneer’s warehouse in London, Cygan, a robot who enjoyed a jazz age of his own in the late 1950s, is waiting to find out if Playful Leeds can raise enough money to bring him back to the stage.

Eight feet tall, weighing almost half a ton, his hands could lift and crush, while the wheels in his feet propelled him around the room in response to voice commands; Cygan seemed to have been designed by the Turin engineer Dr. Piero Fiorito for a life of domestic servitude. In 1957, when Cygan first met the public, robots were to be our path to home lives of leisure and ease – why carry your own radioactive waste to the disposal chute, when Cygan could do it for you?

As Livius at The History Blog has uncovered, however, Dr. Fiorito made one crucial mistake with Cygan. He made him devilishly handsome, “His impressive size, smooth moves, shiny aluminum skin,” topped off by a neon-green mohawk, twenty years before punk. Cygan was immediately non-conformist – within the limits of his circuitry, at least.

An early demonstration of his abilities set the tone. The History Blog quotes a French magazine that called Cygan “the perfect husband,” but film from the British Pathe archive of a public appearance that begins by praising the domestic virtues of the robot as a housewife’s help – destined to be accepted as part of our everyday life, gentle enough to babysit, strong enough to crush cans – ends with Cygan dancing said housewife around the stage on his enormous feet to the sounds of easy jazz, his pincer hands gripping her waist as she gazes into his saucer-like eyes, while the commentator speculates on how many men would be needed to hold Cygan back should he lose his temper on the nightclub dancefloor (more than half a dozen, he thinks).

photo via The History Blog

Built for model home exhibitions, Cygan instead spent seven years in London, exhibiting models. Brought to England to be part of the Windmill Theatre’s risque Revudeville, his strong arms and dancing feet were put to use holding Windmill Girls aloft in London’s only nude revue. How his circuits must have popped and his green mohican glowed in the all-night club scene of late-fifties London! Girls and gangsters, booze and jazz – Cygan’s batteries were good for four-and-a-half hours a day, but Cygan used all his energy at night.

Nobody can keep up that lifestyle for long, not even an eight foot tall robot. By 1964 the Windmill had closed, and the Italian tin man retired to an obscure life in northern England while London kept on swinging without him. Not much is known of the years of his decline, except that he spent many of them in a Ford car dealership somewhere in Leeds – renamed Mr Moto, he was a “mascot,” something perhaps for the kids to play on while mum and dad looked at a second hand Cortina. Nobody has yet worked out where the dealership was, or whether Cygan’s batteries held enough charge for him to escape to town and relive his glory nights.

Perhaps the years in the liquor and smoke-filled rooms of the Windmill had distorted the formerly obedient Cygan’s programming, so that the 9-5 life of a Ford car dealership pulsed with painful humdrum along his wires. That suit-and-tie existence was by no means his lowest point, however; his mohican lost, his metal skin rusted, he declined quickly as he stood outdoors at an unknown airport before making a sad but inevitable journey to the scrapyard. The metaphorical scrapheap has become home to many former nightclub stars over the years, but when you’re a metal man, stripped of your circuitry, the scrapyard is all too literal.

But Cygan was only on standby; his lonely rusting only an intermission before the second act. While mechanics stripped parts from old Capris and Escorts around him, Cygan was retrieved from the scrapyard whole; his tarnished aluminium was buffed as much as possible and the old robot was propped up as part of a window display by M Goldstein at Dover Street Market. He even sported a new neon mohican. Old time London night-owls may have done a double-take when they saw him – Cygan was back in town. But with rusted joints and no circuitry, he’s as decrepit a reveller as they come.

The campaign currently being undertaken by Playful Leeds would put Cygan on a new path. “We think he probably needs a cup of tea and a biscuit,” said Emma Bearman, who is leading efforts to raise £15,000 to buy Cygan from auction at Christies this week. Emma wants to make him part of Playful Leeds’ year-long celebration of robots, beginning this October, with Cygan taking on the civic role of Robot in Residence for Leeds. Cygan would need a lot of care and attention to either restore him to his fully operational 1950s best, or to use modern robotic technology to bring him into the 21st century, but he wouldn’t be lonely: over the course of the year, many more robots will either be created or brought to Leeds to keep company with our new resident.

It’s an opportunity to make a moral of the revels of Cygan’s first act: from domestic servant in Turin to civic servant in Leeds, his fall from grace was payment enough for his party years. Now is the chance for an old robot to follow the path of a lot of former clubbers, by putting his wild years behind him and making good. 

Funding to buy Cygan is being crowdsourced at the Spacehive website – https://spacehive.com/CygantoLeeds – you are invited to make a pledge and contribute to bringing the lost robot to Leeds, where Cygan will find a home with high ceilings and a reinforced concrete floor, and contribute to Playful Leeds’ hopes that robots can help make Leeds a more fun to place to be over the next year. The auction takes place on 5 September, so donations need to made with robotic efficiency.

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