Before Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, Van-Damme’s Universal Soldier, way before the Cylons, and even before the Daleks, there was an earlier robot foot soldier called the Robot Commando. If you’re a serious robot collector, I’m sure you’ve seen him in your travels and may have even been lucky enough to obtain this holy grail. Despite its popularity, however, many people are unclear about the history and technical genius of this work of art. Let’s explore this O.G. robot.
Manufactured by one of America’s largest toy companies, Ideal Toy Company, Ideal, at that time, had already had a strong history of producing many popular toys, making most of its money from its dolls after WWII. Riding high on the success of its 1960 release of Mr. Machine, which was basically an 18 inch large wind up robot in which you could see its internal gears wind and move, Ideal had hoped to capitalize on the robot buzz that was spreading across the U.S. with its own Robot Commando.
Like Mr. Machine, Robot Commando also became a very popular toyline for Ideal, not only because of its own unique attributes, but mainly because of the sheer size of Robot Commando, hovering at 19 inches and weighing in between almost 3-5 lbs. America had always been a country where size matters. In a country where people liked their houses big, cars big, their steak portions big, and whose kids worshipped King Kong, a big robot toy was only the next logical step. Robot Commando was almost the size and weight of a small kitchen appliance, and if you were a kid in 1961 and were seen by the neighborhood kids hauling around, with two hands mind you, this giant robot, you and your Robot Commando would definitely be noticed.
Designed by Marvin Glass and Associates, a toy engineering firm in Chicago that had introduced Mr. Machine, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, and such games as Operation, Mouse Trap, and Simon, Marvin Glass had designed Robot Commando to be a corded remote control battery operated robot that would run on three D-sized batteries, and on command, in addition to move forward, turn left and right, like any other battery operated robot at the time, Robot Commando would also shoot projectiles, hurling various rockets and missiles.
Marketed as the only robot who acted as its own “One-Man Army,” Robot Commando was also marketed as the only robot to respond to commands. Specifically, kids would be able to interact with Robot Commando using its patented hand-held microphone controller, which was attached to the back of Robot Commando with a metal control wire.
This microphone controller was really special. In fact, the only way you’d be able to actually turn on the Robot Commando was to physically blow softly into the microphone controller itself. Without blowing into the controller, the Robot Commando would remain lifeless. I, myself, had bought a custom Robot Commando from Ebay a few years ago, and had to learn the hard way about this novelty of Robot Commando. I spent 2-3 days scratching my head trying to figure out how to turn on the robot, whereupon I would try different batteries, put them in different angles, and would go on youtube to try to troubleshoot. Finally, only after emailing the Seller and telling him that the robot wasn’t working, did I find out about the blowing trick. Maybe he was right, but the Seller just assumed that everybody knew about the blowing mechanism. Obviously I never did, but when you think it about it, blowing into a robot’s controller to turn it on is really genius. Unlike other standard robots, this robot had a special secret trick to turn it on, and if you were a kid at the time and owned such a robot, that would just make you appreciate your Robot Commando even more.
In addition to turning the Robot Commando on and off, the controller also provided access to the robot’s functions, whereupon you could not only control its movement, in which its eyes would rotate while moving, but also shoot red missiles from each of its arms, and fire an atomic rocket from a spring-loaded launcher in its head. This was the real beauty of Robot Commando, as each of its rockets could fire several feet up in the air. And these were not soft shootings. Not only were the rockets pointy, sharp, and made of plastic, but the spring action was very strong, making the rocket zip through the air so that if you weren’t careful, you really could shoot your eye out. I’m just blessed that my whole family wears glasses.
What was also very unique about Robot Commando was that it was voice-controlled, which was the patent of Robot Commando. Inside the remote control was a cable, which once activated, would generate a sufficient amount of mechanical force to engage the gears of the robot and enough air pressure so that a kid could speak into the controller and say, “Fire Missile,” and Robot Commando would do so.
Sound too incredible? It was! Robot Commando was such a mechanical gem that it actually required to be operated by not just one motor, but two of them. One motor was used to control the movement of the robot, and the other motor’s function was for its projectiles, so that it could fire missiles from its arms and rockets from his head. Even by today’s standards, Robot Commando remains a technical masterpiece. Some people claim that Marvin Glass was such a perfectionist, he encountered more than 6000 mechanical and engineering problems before he felt Robot Commando was ready to be released, and required more than 15 redesigns from the original blue prints.
In fact, all of Robot Commando’s complexity and sheer size, is what made Robot Commando popular in its day, and is what still makes it popular to this very day. If you go on Ebay, you’ll be extremely lucky if you are able to find a fully functional Robot Commando, and if you do so, expect to spend at least $300 or more. Most of the Robot Commandos you see today do not move, do not turn on, cannot shoot rockets and missiles, or are missing parts. Luckily, most of these parts can be purchased or made through 3D printing; however, even if you had these parts, if the robot doesn’t work to begin with, you’re still out of luck.
So the next time you go robot toy collecting, and if you happen to stumble upon a Robot Commando, remember two things. One, always bring batteries with you. Most vendors and flea market sellers won’t carry any. So buying anything battery operated is a big gamble, even if it looks like the toy had never been out of the box. Remember, Robot Commando requires D batteries, so bring those.
Two, once you flip the switch to on, remember to blow into the microphone controller. Don’t blow too hard. Just a soft blow should start it up.
Below is a pic of my very own Robot Commando.
Do you remember Robot Commando? We would like to hear your story.