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Simple skill and dream make him China's 'Robot Daddy'

Wu Yulu is busy. The China Central Television and Tianjin Satellite Television have visited his home on successive days to film special programs about him.

In the past few years, he has attended conferences and exhibitions, and lectured at several universities.

"Many people have invited me to dinner. Many of my fans take pictures with me and ask for my autograph," he says.

A third-grade school dropout with a bit of self-taught knowledge of electricity, the 48-year-old farmer's son has hand-made more than 30 robots with wire, iron, steel, wood, and bits and pieces. On his pink name card he has described himself as an "inventor." People call him "Robot Daddy."

Seven years ago, Wu was an obscure man in Mawu Village in the southeast suburbs of Beijing, about an hour's drive from the city center. Only neighbors and close friends knew he had a yen for mechanical work and that he had made some strange machines.

Miniature boats

When he was a small boy, the fifth son of a poor rural family, Wu was regarded by fellow villagers as a black sheep. He didn't like school and often played hooky. But he showed an enormous interest in playing with whatever toys he could get his hands on. His school bag was full of small objects he collected to and from school. He made miniature boats out of wood, rubber bands and steel spring strips. Once he was intrigued by a disused iron lock. He figured out its structure and was eventually able to fashion a master key for it.

Wu quit elementary school in his third year. Teacher Li Shihua, 70, says she was impressed by the boy's handwriting, and his paintings were not bad, either.

"He liked to dismantle and reassemble toys. As for studying, I really don't recall any outstanding moments," she says.

When Wu grew up, he showed little ambition in supporting himself or the family by doing farm work. The yields from the land he tilled were often far less than those of the others. He continued to spend most of the time working on or playing with small gadgets. Being the youngest son in the family, Wu was favored by his parents and indulged. But the behavior that came from being spoiled won him a bad name in the village, where good farm work was most important to a household.

The beginnings of Wu's robot making bore a resemblance to stories about Isaac Newton who also hated school. The robot idea occurred to him one day when he saw a tall young man in blue clothing rushing past the gate.

"I was fascinated by the graceful, coordinated stride of the man's walking. I asked myself 'Can I make a machine man that can walk like him'?" Wu recalls.

He began to sketch on cardboard and found materials to build his machine. He was about 11 years old then. The initial attempt was not successful. But the idea lingered on. A decade later, he was employed by a village factory as a maintenance worker.

His robot dream was rekindled. His first creation was a man-shaped machine that could slowly walk, dragging a tail on the rear to keep balance. It was named Wu No. 1. A series of robots followed, making Wu a prolific "Daddy" of 34 robot children.

Wu No. 1 walked but was unable to raise its legs. Wu No. 2 raised its legs but still needed a tail to maintain balance. The subsequent products improved on the earlier models. They could climb or jump or perform simple human acts. And the number of legs on the robots varied from two to 20.

Wu No. 25 was attached to a two-wheeled cart. "He" greeted people in a pre-recorded human voice. At the command of the person sitting on the cart, who operated a pair of handles that resembled those on a motorbike, "he" pulled the cart forward or moved it backward.

Inventions were inspired by curiosity and an impulse to challenge himself.

"After I had made a robot that could walk, I wanted to see if I could also make it jump," Wu says. "I didn't care about the practical use of the machine, or if it could make money in the future."

Wu had been poor for the greater part of his life. But he would spend his last buck buying materials to make machines. His wife remembered many occasions when she had to borrow money to buy parts for him.

Wu's unpopularity in the village could have been a problem for him to find a wife. But after a first meeting arranged by a matchmaker, he fell in love with a girl named Dong Shuyan.

It was a hot summer. Wu made a device that, driven by electric power, waved a cattail-leaf fan. He took it to Dong's home. The gift captured the girl's heart.

After the wedding ceremony, Dong shouldered the major responsibility of the family, raising two sons and sharing the hardship - and sometimes horror - of her husband's extraordinary experiments.

Wu's left hand was seriously injured by the blast of a detonator that he found at a recycling center and mistook it as an imported battery. The small object was marked "TNT." Wu says he had noticed it but did not understand. He regretted leaving school too early.

And one day in 1999 a fire broke out in Wu's mud brick-and-wood house, causing heavy losses to the family. The fire was started by the voltage regulator Wu used in his work at night. The incident almost led to a divorce and the break-up of the family.

It would not be unfair to say that Wu was a very absent-minded husband and father. "He would forget to eat or sleep when he encountered a problem with a machine," says his second son, Wu Wangyang.

"He did care about us when we were ill. But at other times he did not pay attention to his children like a normal father," Wu Wangyang says. "He cared more about his machines."

Two patents

In 2002, Wu submitted his Wu No. 5 to a national farmer's S&T competition. He won the first prize and an award of 10,000 yuan (US$1,463). Two years later, he won the title of "The Brightest Farmer Inventor" and another 10,000 yuan. He sold his Super Wu No. 5 to an individual and sold another robot that could clean windows to a company. Wu says he is talking with a business group about manufacturing and developing robots.

Han Changjiang, the current village chief, says the local government has helped Wu by supplying electricity. And the two patents Wu holds were obtained under the auspices of the government. "We'll continue to give him due help. But we don't know much about his activities. He seldom talks to us," Han says.

Wu used to be a man of few words. He was reportedly red-faced and couldn't give a word on his first press conference at the 2002 event. Now, he looks natural in front of the camera and talks confidently about his past and present.

With his busy schedule, Wu has less time now to design and build machines. "It is a concern," he says. "It will be temporary. I have many ideas in my mind that need to materialize."

Wu did make two new robots this year, increasing the total of his robots to 36. He says that one robot was designed to help turn patients over in beds. The other can play chess with people. The two robots use artificial intelligence furnished by his younger son Wu Wangyang, who is a first-year computer science and technology major at Beijing Information Science & Technology University.

According to teacher Li, Wu's passion for and talent in making machines was inherited from his late father.

Wu Wangyang says after graduating from college, he would help his father in weaving the robot dream. The father and son seem to be nurturing a vivid and bright inventive future.


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