Rock Em! Sock Em! Sue Em!

Legal battles decked the wildly popular Robot Wars competitions. Now a challenger has arisen to save the sport.

The first Robot Wars event in August 1994 attracted some 1,000 people to Fort Mason, and featured 17 robots, dueling in a 60-by-40-foot arena, marked off with a pipe railing. The crowd cheered on these strange vehicles powered by gasoline engines and Makita power drills. Designs ranged from a ventriloquist's dummy on a tricycle to a vehicle with a lawn mower blade on top. As an independent demonstration for the crowd, Thorpe invited San Francisco industrial art-punks Survival Research Laboratories, who brought a giant three-legged robotic beast. When driver Mark Pauline fired up the propane jet engine, it blasted everyone's ears and rattled the windows.

The 1994 event lost money but gained international attention, and both Thorpe and Plotnicki realized there might be money in licensing and broadcast rights to the contests. The following spring, a British production company purchased a Robot Wars license and began developing a TV version for the BBC.

For the next three years, Robot Wars was held each August at Fort Mason. As the technology evolved, so did the robot designs. Builders would spend an entire year developing robots that wielded a chain-saw blade, pneumatic battering ram, or swinging sledgehammer. One popular style was a wedge shape, made successful by Trey Roski, a graphic designer, and his La Machine creation, which was perfect for shoving a competitor into obstacles.

Johnathan Ridder and his robot Ziggo, named after his cat.
Don Lewis
Johnathan Ridder and his robot Ziggo, named after his cat.
The crablike Mechadon, built by Mark Setrakian and Team Sinister.
Don Lewis
The crablike Mechadon, built by Mark Setrakian and Team Sinister.

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People crowded in to glimpse the latest design of Hollywood special effects artist Mark Setrakian, whose precise attention to aesthetics resulted in highly customized robots with walking legs, or one that looked like a mechanical snake. Setrakian and his Team Sinister were viewed as something akin to the Ed "Big Daddy" Roths of the robot world.

And then there was Blendo.

No robot then or now has captured the imagination of the audience more than Blendo. Although it has not appeared in public since 1997, a curious mystique surrounds it to this day. Not only was it exciting to watch, and undefeated, but Robot Wars deemed Blendo so dangerous that it ultimately was banned from competition.

Blendo's design was deceptively simple: Two $30 Chinese cooking woks were bolted to a steel plate. Underneath this dome shape, a 5-horsepower Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engine spun a metal flywheel at 70 miles an hour. Two sharp blades were bolted to the flywheel, and protruded several inches from under the dome. A paper loader mechanism borrowed from a Xerox machine functioned as the drive system.

The result was a 175-pound Weber grill from Satan's own back yard. Nobody stood a chance. Blendo didn't just defeat opponents, its centrifugal force literally tore them to shreds, dramatically flinging pieces into the air with a loud thwack. Most matches were over within seconds, the audience screaming and stamping its feet, as the opposing driver quietly picked up stray wheels and metal shards from the arena. People would swarm the Team Blendo pit area, measuring the robot, taking photographs, drawing schematics, trying to figure out its design weaknesses, if any, and how to modify their own armor to defend against it. Visitors to Internet robot forums posted endless theories on how to take Blendo down. Robot Wars modified its official rules to reflect Blendo's revolutionary rotary-inertia design.

Playing off their notoriety, designer Jamie Hyneman and other Team Blendo members would show up at events wearing cammo fatigues, and refuse to speak with any other roboteers. Hyneman would find out who his next opponent was, then sit nearby, staring him down while honing the tips of Blendo's blades.

"They'd get all worked up," he laughs. "The pit area got quiet, and people turned pale. We like that kind of thing. This is all just great fun."

Hyneman says he spent only $600 to construct Blendo, most of which paid for the radio electronics. Since going into semi-retirement, Hyneman has had time to think about his brief tenure as a Robot Wars superstar.

"All of the geeks who were never on the football team but made straight A's in science -- this is their chance to be bullies," says Hyneman, who builds models for M5 Industries in San Francisco. "There's a huge amount of emotion involved. Unlike the high school football game, there's a lot of thought, very high-quality thought, that goes into this stuff. You're competing against something that you have no idea what you're going to go against."

But after four years of Robot Wars -- with its sold-out crowds, international media attention, and an ever-growing community of robot builders -- the fun stopped.

Almost from the beginning, the business structure of Robot Wars was fractious and confrontational. The company existed with no corporate structure or signed document, other than the original Joint Venture Agreement between Marc Thorpe and Profile Records.

Although the first four events were popular, none turned a profit. Both Steve Plotnicki and Thorpe suspected there was money to be made in toy merchandising and licensing. But other than a 1995 deal with British television, and a game concept with Virgin Interactive that went nowhere, no deals were ever cut. From Profile's perspective, Robot Wars bled money from the beginning.

The annual contests almost ended after 1995. According to Thorpe's court filings, Profile discontinued his salary just before the 1996 Robot Wars, and refused to fund that year's event unless it got a greater percentage of the ownership to the rights. Thorpe borrowed money from two Profile employees, put in $24,000 of his own money, and produced the 1996 event anyway. Profile relented, and assisted with the production.

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