The Sound of Science

Fridays 9am – Sheffield Live! – 93.2FM

Show 39 – First broadcast 6th Feb 2009


W. Grey Walter and his amazing tortoise robots


This week’s programme is devoted entirely to the fascinating story of W. Grey Walter (1910-1977) a great British Scientist: psychologist-neurophysiologist-roboticist-social commentator-TV celebrity.

Our focus on Grey Walter is on his amazing futuristic robots. He was far ahead of his time. Apart from a couple of simple predecessors, Grey Walter designed and built the first fully autonomous tortoise robots that could seek light, avoid obstacles and return to their hutchs to automatically recharge. They were the first robots to interact with each other and the first learning robots. They were even said to flirt with each other

I have long known about his work and this is my journey of discovery to learn about what was behind the man and to find one of the robots in the flesh.

The journey was helped by a number of interviewees who probably know more about Grey Walter than anyone else. Alphabetically:

Professor Rod Brooks from MIT founder of iRobots and widely held to be the father of modern Behaviour Based Robots.

Professor Richard Gregory FRS, Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology, University of Bristol. A personal friend of the late Grey Walter.

Dr. Rodri Hayward an historian from Queen Mary, University of London, who researches the history of medicine and has written a paper on Grey Walter called The Tortoise and the Love-Machine.

Professor Owen Holland from the University of Essex who actually discovered one of the robots and replicated it. Owen has written about the legacy of Grey Walter.

Professor Alan Winfield director of the Bristol Robotics Lab at the University of West England

Science Museum: Special thanks to Rob Skitmore and John Mumford from the London Science Museum for getting one of the original tortoises out of its case and explaining it to us.

Check out more pictures of the robots at the Bristol Robotics Lab in Bristol

There is a lovely old New Reel piece of Grey Walter, his wife and his robots Elmer and Elsie

There is a short biography here

Music on the show

Intro: Sound of Silence, Beastie Boys followed by Polar Bear Standing and Ready by Polar Bear from their album Dim Lit

Intro to the feature was tic composed and produced by Niall Griffith

Outro: Locomotion by the John Coltrane Quartet


February 6, 2009 - Posted by | Science on Radio

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