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Karel Čapek

Czech writer
Born January 9, 1890
Died December 25, 1938
Occupation writer
Spouse(s) Olga Scheinpflugová

Karel Čapek (Czech pronunciation: [ˈkarɛl ˈtʃapɛk]  ( listen)) (January 9, 1890 – December 25, 1938) was one of the most influential Czech writers of the 20th century. He introduced and made popular the frequently used international word robot, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1921. Karel credited his brother, Josef Čapek, as the true inventor of the word robot.

Čapek was born in Malé Svatoňovice, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic).


Life and work

Karel Čapek wrote with intelligence and humour on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known for their interesting and precise descriptions of reality, and Čapek is renowned for his excellent work with the Czech language. He is perhaps best known as a science fiction author, who wrote before science fiction became widely recognized as a separate genre. He can be considered one of the founders of classical, non-hardcore European science fiction, a type which focuses on possible future (or alternative) social and human evolution on Earth, rather than technically advanced stories of space travel. However, it is best to classify him with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell as a speculative fiction writer, distinguishing his work from genre-specific hard science fiction.

House of Čapek brothers in Prague 10-Vinohrady

Many of his works discuss ethical and other aspects of revolutionary inventions and processes that were already anticipated in the first half of 20th century. These include mass production, atomic weapons, and post-human intelligent beings such as robots or intelligent salamanders.

In addressing these themes, Čapek was also expressing fear of impending social disasters, dictatorship, violence, and the unlimited power of corporations, as well as trying to find some hope for human beings. Čapek's literary heirs include Ray Bradbury, Salman Rushdie, Brian Aldiss and Dan Simmons.

His other books and plays include detective stories, novels, fairy tales and theatre plays, and even a book on gardening. His most important works attempt to resolve problems of epistemology, to answer the question: "What is knowledge?" Examples include "The Tales from Two Pockets", and first book of all the trilogy of novels Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life.

Grave of Karel Čapek and his spouse Olga Scheinpflugová in Vyšehrad cemetery

Later, in the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal Nazi and fascist dictatorships. His most productive years coincided with the existence of the first republic of Czechoslovakia (1918–1938). He wrote Talks with T. G. Masaryk[1]Masaryk was a Czech patriot, the first President of Czechoslovakia, and a regular guest at Čapek's Friday garden parties for Czech patriots. Čapek was also a member of Masaryk's Hrad political network. This extraordinary relationship between the author and the political leader may be unique, and was an inspiration for Václav Havel. He also became a member of International PEN.

Soon after it became clear that the Western allies had refused to help defend Czechoslovakia against Hitler, Čapek refused to leave his country – despite the fact that the Gestapo had named him Czechoslovakia's "public enemy number 2." Though he suffered all his life from the condition Spondyloarthritis, Karel Čapek died of double pneumonia on December 25, 1938, shortly after part of Bohemia was annexed by Nazi Germany following the so-called Munich Agreement. He was interred in the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague. His brother Josef Čapek, a painter and writer, died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

After the war, Čapek's work was only reluctantly accepted by the Communist regime of Czechoslovakia, because during his life he had refused to accept a communist utopia as a viable alternative.[2]

Etymology of robot

The word robot comes from the word robota meaning literally serf labor, and, figuratively, "drudgery" or "hard work" in Czech, Slovak and Polish. The origin of the word is the Old Church Slavonic rabota "servitude" ("work" in contemporary Russian), which in turn comes from the Indo-European root *orbh-. Robot is cognate with the German word Arbeiter (worker).

While it is frequently thought that Karel Čapek was the originator of the word, he wrote a short letter in reference to an article in the Oxford English Dictionary etymology in which he named his brother, painter and writer Josef Čapek, as its actual inventor.[3] In an article in the Czech journal Lidové noviny in 1933, he also explained that he had originally wanted to call the creatures laboři (from Latin labor, work). However, he did not like the word, seeing it as too artificial, and sought advice from his brother Josef, who suggested "roboti" (robots in English).

An outline of Čapek's works

Works which can be considered early science fiction

Anti-Nazi plays from the 1930s

  • 1937 - The White Disease (Bílá nemoc) - earlier translated as Power and Glory
  • 1938 - The Mother (Matka)

Other works

  • Stories from a Pocket and Stories from Another Pocket (Povídky z jedné a z druhé kapsy) — a common name for a cycle of short detective stories (5–10 pages long) that shared common attitude and characters, including The Last Judgement.
  • How it is Made — satiric novels on the life of theatre, newspaper and film studio.
  • The Gardener's Year (Zahradníkův rok, 1929) is exactly what it says it is: a year-round guide to gardening, charmingly written, with illustrations by his brother Josef Čapek.[4]
  • Pictures from the Insects' Life (Ze života hmyzu), also known as Insect Play, with Josef Čapek, a satire in which insects stand in for various human characteristics: the flighty, vain butterfly, the obsequious, self serving dung beetle.
  • Apocryphal Tales (Kniha apokryfů, 1932, 2nd edition 1945),[5] short stories about literary and historical characters, such as Hamlet, a struggling playwright, Pontius Pilate, Don Juan, Alexander arguing with his teacher Aristotle, and Sarah and Abraham attempting to name ten good people so Sodom can be saved: E.g. "What do you have against Namuel? He's stupid but he's pious."
  • Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure (Devatero Pohádek a ještě jedna od Josefa Čapka jako přívažek, 1932)
  • Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy (Dášenka čili Život štěněte, 1933)[6]

Travel books

  • Letters from Italy (Italské listy, 1923)[7]
  • Letters from England (Anglické listy, 1924)[8]
  • Letters from Spain (Výlet do Španěl, 1930)[9]
  • Letters from Holland (Obrázky z Holandska, 1932)[10]
  • Travels in the North (Cesta na Sever, 1936)[11]

Selected bibliography

  • The Absolute at Large, 1922 (in Czech), 1927, The Macmillan Company, New York, translator uncredited. Also published June 1975, Garland Publishing ISBN 0-8240-1403-0,
  • Apocryphal Tales, 1945 (in Czech), May 1997, Catbird Press Paperback ISBN 0-945774-34-6, Translated by Norma Comrada
  • An Atomic Phantasy: Krakatit or simply Krakatit, 1924 (in Czech)
  • Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure, October 1996, Northwestern Univ Press Paperback Reissue Edition, ISBN 0-8101-1464-X. Illustrated by Josef Capek, Translated by Dagmar Herrmann
  • R.U.R, March 1970, Pocket Books ISBN 0-671-46605-4
  • Tales from Two Pockets
  • Short story collection, Mystery (nsf) Translated by Norma Comrada June 194, Catbird Press Paperback ISBN 0-945774-25-7
  • Talks With T.G. Masaryk Non-fiction. Biography of T.G. Masaryk, founder of Czechoslovakia.
  • Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Lives NSF? Translated by M. and R. Weatherall
  • Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader. Collection of stories, plays and columns. Edited by Peter Kussi, Catbird Press ISBN 0-945774-07-9
  • War with the Newts 1936 (in Czech), May 1967, Berkley Medallion Edition Paperback. Translated by M. & R. Weatherall, March 1990, Catbird Press paperback, ISBN 0-945774-10-9, October 1996, Northwestern University Press paperback ISBN 0-8101-1468-2

Čapek in popular culture

  • On the science fiction cartoon show Futurama (season 1, episode 5 - "Fear of a Bot Planet"), a planet inhabited entirely by robots was named "Chapek 9", as a reference to Karel Čapek's coining of the term "robot".
  • In the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah", the android Rayna Kapec was named in honor of Čapek.
  • A recurring character in the cartoon show Batman: The Animated Series was named Karl Rossum. He was an inventor that specialized in robots.
  • The story "Big Robots" in Judge Dredd Megazine (#257 - ?) features a Mega City One tower block named "Karel Čapek" which turned out to be a giant robot.
  • At least two computer programming languages were named for Čapek:
    • KAREL is the programming language for FANUC robots.
    • Karel is a teaching tool, intended to introduce programming to beginners; students instruct a robot (also named Karel) how to perform various tasks.
  • In the computer game Red Faction there is a character named Dr. Capek, who is involved in experiments with nanotechnology.
  • The Japanese H-game R.U.R.U.R. uses "Čapek" as a term for a specific type of robot: biological machines made from flesh mixed in a vat with nanomachines.
  • There is a Dr Capek in Heinlein's DOUBLE STAR.
  • On the TV show Dollhouse, the parent corporation is named Rossum.
  • In the video game Mass Effect 2, one mission requires the player to shut down a factory which produces defective robots on a planet called Capek.

See also


External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

It was a great thing to be a human being. It was something tremendous... Gentlemen, it was a great thing

Karel Čapek (1890-01-091938-12-25) was a Czech author and playwright, who introduced and made popular the word "robot" as a word for artificial human beings, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1920.



  • Be these people either Conservatives or Socialists, Yellows or Reds, the most important thing is — and that is the point I want to stress — that all of them are right in the plain and moral sense of the word. . . I ask whether it is not possible to see in the present social conflict of the world an analogous struggle between two, three, five equally serious verities and equally generous idealisms? I think it is possible, and that is the most dramatic element in modern civilization, that a human truth is opposed to another human truth no less human, ideal against ideal, positive worth against worth no less positive, instead of the struggle being as we are so often told, one between noble truth and vile selfish error.
    • R.U.R. supplement in The Saturday Review (1923)
  • Socialism is good when it comes to wages, but it tells me nothing when it comes to other questions in life that are more private and painful, for which I must seek answers elsewhere. Relativism is not indifference; on the contrary, passionate indifference is necessary in order for you not to hear the voices that oppose your absolute decrees. . . Relativism is neither a method of fighting, nor a method of creating, for both of these are uncompromising and at times even ruthless; rather, it is a method of cognition. If one must fight or create, it is necessary that this be preceded by the broadest possible knowledge ... One of the worst muddles of this age is its confusing of the ideas behind combative and cognitive activity. Cognition is not fighting, but once someone knows a lot, he will have much to fight for, so much that he will be called a relativist because of it.
    • "On Relativism" (1925)
  • Much melancholy has devolved upon mankind, and it is detestable to me that might will triumph in the end ... Art must not serve might.
    • Statement to S. K. Neumann, as quoted Karel Čapek: Life and Work (2002) by Ivan Klima
  • I think I am slowly becoming an anarchist, that this is only another label for my privateness, and I think that you will understand this in the sense of being against collectivity.
    • Statement to S. K. Neumann, as quoted Karel Čapek: Life and Work (2002) by Ivan Klima
  • Great God of the Ants, thou hast granted victory to thy servants. I appoint thee honorary Colonel.
    • The Insect Play
  • I certainly don't know if you could claim that every theft is wrong, but I'll prove to you that every theft is forbidden, by simply locking you up.
    • Sgt. Bartosek in Footprints from Towards the Radical Center
  • I don't say that it is a bad or useless profession: but it isn't one of the superlatively fine and striking ones, and the material used is of a strange sort — you don't even see it. But I'd like all the things I used to see to be in it: the ringing hammer-strokes of the smith and the colors of the whisping of the stone-mason, the bustling of the baker, the humility of the poor, and all the lusty strength and skill which men of towering stature put into their work before the astonished and fascinated eyes of a child.

R.U.R. (1920)

My dear Miss Glory, Robots are not people. They are mechanically more perfect than we are, they have an astounding intellectual capacity, but they have no soul...
  • My dear Miss Glory, Robots are not people. They are mechanically more perfect than we are, they have an astounding intellectual capacity, but they have no soul.
  • Dear Miss Glory, we've already had at least a hundred saviors and prophets here. Every boat brings another one. Missionaries, anarchists, the Salvation Army, everything imaginable. It would amaze you to know how many churches and lunatics there are in the world.
  • Robots do not hold on to life. They can't. They have nothing to hold on with — no soul, no instinct. Grass has more will to live than they do.
  • They learn to speak, write, and do arithmetic. They have a phenomenal memory. If one read them the Encyclopedia Britannica they could repeat everything back in order, but they never think up anything original. They'd make fine university professors.
  • Any acceleration constitutes progress, Miss Glory. Nature had no understanding of the modern rate of work. From a technical standpoint the whole of childhood is pure nonsense. Simply wasted time. An untenable waste of time.
  • Within the next ten years Rossum's Universal Robots will produce so much wheat, so much cloth, so much everything that things will no longer have any value. Everyone will be able to take as much as he needs. There'll be no more poverty. Yes, people will be out of work, but by then there'll be no work left to be done. Everything will be done by living machines. People will do only what they enjoy. They will live only to perfect themselves... But before that some awful things may happen, Miss Glory. That just can't be avoided. But then the subjugation of man by man and the slavery of man to matter will cease. Never again will anyone pay for his bread with hatred and his life. There'll be no more laborers, no more secretaries. No one will have to mine coal or slave over someone else's machines. No longer will man need to destroy his soul doing work that he hates.
  • O Adam, Adam! no longer will you have to earn your bread by the sweat of your brow; you will return to Paradise where you were nourished by the hand of God. You will be free and supreme; you will have no other task, no other work, no other cares than to perfect your own being. You will be the master of creation.
  • People should be a little loony, Helena. That's the best thing about them.
  • "Figh-ting in the Bal-kans." Lord Jesus, another of God's punishments! But that war'll get here too! Is it far from here?
  • It's always the same thing, one war after another —
  • Each factory will be making Robots of a diťferent color, a different nationality, a different tongue; that they'll all be different — as different from one another as fingerprints; that they'll no longer be able to conspire with one another; and ... we, we people will help to foster their prejudices and cultivate their mutual lack of understanding, you see? So that any given Robot, to the day of its death, right to the grave, will forever hate a Robot bearing the trademark of another factory... Thunder, we'll make Black Robots and Swedish Robots and Italian Robots and Chinese Robots, and then let someone try to drive the notion of brotherhood into the noggin of their organization...
Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race... Preserve only the factories, railroads, machines, mines, and raw materials. Destroy everything else. Then return to work. Work must not cease.
  • Robots of the world, you are ordered to exterminate the human race. Do not spare the men. Do not spare the women. Preserve only the factories, railroads, machines, mines, and raw materials. Destroy everything else. Then return to work. Work must not cease.
  • We made the Robots look too much alike. A hundred thousand identical faces all looking this way. A hundred thousand expressionless faces. It's a nightmare.
  • Old Rossum thought only of his godless hocus-pocus and young Rossum of his billions. And that wasn't the dream of your R. U. R. shareholders either. They dreamed of the dividends. And on those dividends humanity will perish.
  • I wanted man to become a master! So he wouldn't have to live from hand to mouth! I didn't want to see another soul grow numb slaving over someone else's machines! I wanted there to be nothing, nothing, nothing left of that damned social mess! I abhorred degradation and suffering! I was fighting against poverty! I wanted a new generation of mankind! ... I wanted to transform all of humanity into a world-wide aristocracy. Unrestricted, free, and supreme people. Something even greater than people.
  • Thunder, there are so many beautiful things! The world was beautiful and we — we — Boys, boys, tell me, what did we ever take the time to enjoy?
  • Everything is done for! All of humanity! The whole world!. ... Look, look, streams of blood on every doorstep! Streams of blood from every house! Oh, God, God, who's responsible for this?
  • I blame science! I blame technology! Domin! Myself! All of us! We, we are at fault! For the sake of our megalomania, for the sake of somebody's profits, for the sake of progress, I don't know, for the sake of some tremendous something we have murdered humanity! So now you can crash under the weight of all your greatness! No Genghis Khan has ever erected such an enormous tomb from human bones!
  • They stopped being machines. You see, they realize their superiority and they hate us. They hate everything human.
  • A guilty party is being sought. Such action is a favorite means of consolation in the face of calamity.
  • Mankind will endure. In twenty years the world will belong to man again; even if it's only to a couple of savages on the tiniest island ... that'll be a start. And as long as there's some small beginning, that's fine. In a thousand years they'll have caught up to where we are now and then surpass even that ... to accomplish what we only dreamed of.
  • It was a great thing to be a human being. It was something tremendous. Suddenly I'm conscious of a million sensations buzzing in me like bees in a hive. Gentlemen, it was a great thing.
  • You still stand watch, O human star, burning without a flicker, perfect flame, bright and resourceful spirit. Each of your rays a great idea — O torch which passes from hand to hand, from age to age, world without end.
  • Robots of the world! Many people have fallen. By seizing the factory we have become the masters of everything. The age of mankind is over. A new world has begun! The rule of Robots!
  • Why are there stars when there are no people? O God, why don't you just extinguish them? — Cool my brow, ancient night! Divine and fair as you always were — O night, what purpose do you serve? There are no lovers, no dreams. O nursemaid, dead as a sleep without dreams, you no longer hallow anyone's prayers. O mother of us all, you don't bless a single heart smitten with love. There is no love.
  • Nothing is stranger to man than his own image.
  • We've become beings with souls... Something struggles within us. There are moments when something gets into us. Thoughts come to us which are not our own... People are our fathers! The voice that cries out that you want to live; the voice that complains; the voice that reasons; the voice that speaks of eternity — that is their voice!
  • I've found a place that would amaze you. People used to live there, but now it's all overgrown and no one goes there. Absolutely no one — only me... Just a little house and a garden. And two dogs. If you could see how they licked my hands, and their puppies — oh, Primus, there's probably nothing more beautiful! You take them on your lap and cuddle them, and just sit there until sundown not thinking about anything and not worrying about anything. Then when you get up you feel as though you've done a hundred times more than a lot of work. Really, I'm not good for much of anything. Everyone says I'm not cut out for any kind of work. I don't know what I'm good for.
  • Helena, do you ever have times when your heart's suddenly struck with the feeling, "Now, now something must happen —"
  • O nature, nature, life will not perish! Friends, Helena, life will not perish! It will begin anew with love; it will start out naked and tiny; it will take root in the wilderness, and to it all that we did and built will mean nothing — our towns and factories, our art, our ideas will all mean nothing, and yet life will not perish! Only we have perished. Our houses and machines will be in ruins, our systems will collapse, and the names of our great will fall away like dry leaves. Only you, love, will blossom on this rubbish heap and commit the seed of life to the winds. Now let Thy servant depart in peace, O Lord, for my eyes have beheld — beheld Thy deliverance through love, and life shall not perish!

The Absolute at Large (1921)

  • I've tried all isolating materials that might possibly prevent the Absolute from getting out of the cellar: ashes, sand, metal walls, but nothing can stop it. I've even tried lining the cellar walls with the works of Professors Krejci, Spencer, and Haeckle, all the Positivists you can think of; if you can believe it, the Absolute penetrates even things like that.
  • At the Petrin telegraph station, religion broke out like an epidemic. For no earthly reason, all the telegraph operators on duty were sending out ecstatic messages to the whole world, a sort of new gospel saying that God is coming back down to earth to redeem it ...
  • There came into the world an unlimited abundance of everything people need. But people need everything except unlimited abundance.
  • You can have a revolution wherever you like, except in a government office; even were the world to come to an end, you'd have to destroy the universe first and then government offices.

Letters from England (1925)

The only perfection which modern civilisation achieves is mechanical; machines are magnificent and immaculate but the life which serves them or is served by them isn't magnificent or shiny or more perfect or more comely.
  • The only perfection which modern civilisation achieves is mechanical; machines are magnificent and immaculate but the life which serves them or is served by them isn't magnificent or shiny or more perfect or more comely.
  • One never knows whether people have principles on principle or whether for their own personal satisfaction.
  • The Continent is noisier, less disciplined, dirtier, more rabid, craftier, more passionate, more convivial, more amorous, hedonistic, vivacious, coarse, garrulous, unruly and somehow less perfect. Please, give me a ticket straight to the Continent.
  • I have seen greatness and power, wealth, prosperity and incomparable development. I was never sad that we are a small and unfinished part of the world. To be small, unsettled and uncompleted is a good and courageous mission.

Quotes about Čapek

  • To be diligent in one's service became the credo of Capek's life, and he therefore supported anything that would give people a zest for work, for life, for creating a free society. His philosophy called for each individual to seek the positive in this world, so that he can "lift himself" with every step taken under his own power.
    • Ivan Klima in Karel Čapek: Life and Work (2002)
  • No writer in Czechoslovakia (and very few elsewhere in the world) reacted with such accuracy . . . and with such passion to the Nazi takeover.
    • Ivan Klima in Karel Čapek: Life and Work (2002)
  • Letters from England is what nearly every reviewer said it was: a "charming" and "humane" work of travel literature by a man of wry, candid, and cosmopolitan sensibility. Capek brings just the right mixture of admiration and affectionate deprecation to bear on his subject; he gives his curiosity free rein, but tempers both praise and deflation with humor; he is as alive to human accomplishment as he is to human folly, and it is rare that he discovers one unmodified by the other.

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