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Insect-sized robots which fly on artificial wings or skitter around on multiple mechanical legs are becoming more and more common as subjects of real-world research and development, but they've been a common theme in science fiction for quite a long time. What was the first robotic insect envisioned in art or fiction?

To avoid robots that aren't quite buggy enough, I'd like examples that fit the following criteria:

  • Very small: Certainly small enough to fit in the palm of one's hand.
  • Insect-like morphology: Flapping wings or multiple legs at a minimum, but preferably some mimetic qualities that otherwise resemble an insect (such as mandibles, a proboscis, bulbous eyes, a distinct thorax/abdomen, etc)
  • There are some in a Stanislaw Lem book from 1964, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invincible – ott-- Apr 27 '16 at 21:00
  • These aren't just found in science fiction either, btw: nbcnews.com/technology/… – Rand al'Thor Apr 27 '16 at 21:01
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    @Randal'Thor Thus the first sentence of my question :) – recognizer Apr 27 '16 at 21:13
  • Will you accept a remote-controlled mechanical insect, or does it have to be autonomous? – user14111 Apr 27 '16 at 21:39
  • @user14111 Both are fine, I'd guess that more examples are remote-controlled than autonomous. – recognizer Apr 28 '16 at 16:26
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1936: "The Scarab", a short story by Raymond Z. Gallun (rhymes with "balloon"); first published in Astounding Stories, August 1936; reprinted in the 1954 anthology Science-Fiction Thinking Machines: Robots, Androids, Computers edited by Groff Conklin; reviewed at Technovelgy. The story begins:

The message sped through the ether at 7:40 P.M., Eastern Standard Time. At 7:43 the Scarab crept out on a window ledge of the room topping a tall building popularly known as the N.J. House.

The Scarab paused on its perch for a moment, as if to determine for itself whether it was perfectly fit for action. It was a tiny thing, scarcely more than an inch and a half in length. The fancy of the craftsman who had made it had given to the Scarab the form of the beetle after which it was named. But its body had a metallic sheen, and its vitals were far more intricate than those of the finest watch.

The Scarab rubbed its hind legs together, as flies will do when at rest. Then, apparently satisfied that it was in condition, it unfolded the coleoptera-like plates over its wings. With a buzz that any uninformed person would have mistaken for that of a beetle, it started out on its journey.

It should be noted that the Scarab, although called a "robot" in the story, is remotely controlled by a man:

It was 8:43 P.M. in the topmost room of the N.J. House, more properly known as the National Justice Building.

The wizened little man leaned back wearily and triumphantly in his wheel chair. He drew his hands away from the complicated maze of levers and buttons before him. By means of them, through a system of radio impulses, the intricate, tiny robot could be guided and directed. The radiovision screen was still portraying a wild though satisfying view, picturing what the Scarab's eyes beheld. The speaker in a mahogany box still reproduced the sounds heard by the Scarab's microphonic ears.

  • This is a wonderful example of the type of thing I'm looking for. It's interesting that the Scarab's emulation of a real insect's behavior is emphasized - that's something that seems to vary from story to story, and I feel like later robotic insect spies usually rely on their small size rather than a perfect insect disguise. – recognizer May 1 '16 at 22:59
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If you count improbable stories about historical characters as fiction, consider the quaint phrase about the value of miniaturization: "Who admireth not the fly of Regiomontanus more than his eagle?"

"Regiomontanus" or Johannes Muller von Konigsburg (1436-1476) is said to have built an eagle that flew out to greet a visiting emperor, and to have shown a mechanical fly that flew around the room.

The story goes back to to Peter Ramus (1515-1572)

So the passage where Ramus wrote about them could be considered an early piece of science fiction, even if part of a generally non fiction work.

  • This is interesting, but I don't think this really qualifies as fiction to me - All sorts of automata did exist in antiquity, so it's not apparent that such tales were meant as fiction. And while they may well be false (as many such tales seem to be), they don't exactly rise to the status of myth or legend in my eyes either... – recognizer May 1 '16 at 22:56

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