There are hundreds of movies, books, and stories today that have their roots in the 30s-50s. One of my favorites is the "computer takes over the world" genre that birthed movies like the Terminator franchise, the Matrix franchise, and the movie Eagle Eye. I know they all descended from the novel Colossus, by Dennis Jones.

What was the original story that spawned this genre? Was there a short story, book, stage-play, or film that predates Colossus?

  • Answers must specify an entry in the "computer takes over the world" genre.

  • Answers should include a title, author, a short synopsis, and one or more links to additional information.

  • The best answer after a week will be the post citing the oldest entry.

  • As entries have begun to come in, we've been enlighted with the idea that "computer takes over the world" is, itself, a derivation of "automation/machinery takes over humanity." Therefore, stories that reflect any machine, mechanism, or automation not biologically created is a valid story. The limitaiton is that all of humanity, not simply a region or small number, must be reflected in the story.

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    @JoeC there's certainly a chain, I'm looking for the first link.
    – JBH
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 3:46
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    @AngeloFuchs, I've been thinking about this. I'd forgotten about R.U.R. and hadn't heard of "The Mind Machine" (Wonderful!). Both are the consequence of the Industrial Revolution and yet a century after the first Difference Engines could inspire the idea of machines taking over humanity. The source of the genre must be the fear of machines and automation, and so I must admit that a single AI is not requred to be the ultimate source of the genre. RUR and "The Mind Machine" are in. I'll edit my question to reflect this.
    – JBH
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 7:04
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    @JBH I remember Isaac Asimov's "robot" series was said to be inspired by a rejection of the common science fiction trope of robots rising up against their creators or masters. The Three Laws of Robotics, supposedly making that trope impossible, were introduced in "Runaround" Astounding Science Fiction, March 1942, and his first story about non hostile robots could be "Liar!" Astounding May 1941. Lester del Rey's story "Helen O'Loy" Astounding December 1938 has also been described as avoiding the common trope of hostile robots. So robot revolts were a cliche in the 1930s. Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 7:23
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    While it stops short of spelling out machine takeover, Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Century (written in 1863) comes remarkably close to a future where machines dominate. People value business and technology above all else. There is little room for soldiers, because they have been replaced by killing machines. Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 13:36
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    The concept of humans becoming bound to (served and serving) the "machine/industry" is one of the subtexts of H. G. Well's The Time Machine - 1895. I did not offer it as an answer as in this case "the machine" that tends to the Eloi is tended to by the Morlocks is not the central premise of the story rather it is a way to explain how Eloi and Morlock evolved from Humans in such radical ways.
    – JonSG
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 20:01

7 Answers 7


1909: E.M. Forster: "The Machine Stops".

The story is set in a world where humanity lives underground and relies on a giant machine to provide its needs. Most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard room, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine.

Kuno, a rebel, has visited the surface of the Earth without permission, and he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. However, the Machine recaptured him, and he has been threatened with 'Homelessness', that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. The religion 'Technopoly' views the Machine as an object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own.

The story can be read here.

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    that was a fantastic story
    – WendyG
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 12:18
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    I'm surprised it's that old. On reading it I was certain the author had seen the inside of a large air carrier (reads like a jetliner but a large propeller carrier would match the interior well enough).
    – Joshua
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 15:58
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    While the Machine has certain AI aspects, it has no volition. People ask it to do things, it does them. It is basically Alexa. It does not act on its own, and did not take over the world - we did that. I'm not sure this really fits the OP? Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 21:41
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    Not sure why this is active in my feed, but to address Maury's comment - the scene with the Mending Apparatus confronting Kuno and the Cloud Dweller on the surface make it appear that the Machine has become a "paperclip maximizer". It may not be conscious in a human manner, but it is relentlessly pursuing its original directive(s) in a way that has become orthogonal to human values, and that places it into a position of (originally unintended) power.
    – tbrookside
    Commented Nov 19, 2022 at 12:54
  • @MauryMarkowitz I elected to accept this as the earliest date because unintended consequences are another way to lose control over something.
    – JBH
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 16:42

1919: "The Mind Machine", a short story by Michael Williams, published in All-Story Weekly, March 29, 1919. Reviewed by Everett F. Bleiler in Science-Fiction: The Early Years:

A narrative told from the future.

After World War I the world was rebuilt economically, with the great cartel International Power and Mechanical Company becoming very important. Strange things, however, happen at the company's power plants. Employees are found dead, with no obvious cause of death, and associated with them is a blue unanalyzable liquid.

Old Doctor Evans has a solution. Many years earlier he had invented a living machine to handle complicated operations, but fearful of its implications, decided to destroy it. He was commanded not to do so by the Inner Circle, a revolutionary organization to which he belonged. The Inner Circle, for its own purposes, wanted to place the machines around strategically. Evans obeyed, installing the machines as ordered.

As Evans has reasoned out, the living machines have thrown off the control of the Inner Circle and are operating for their own purposes. A revolt of the machines now breaks out in full strength. The machines drive humans out of the cities, which they take over.

For many years mankind lives in caves far from the urban centers. Decades later, when daring explorers visit the cities, they find ruins and only rusted, dead machinery.

Probably intended as a parable on labor.

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    Why was this downvoted? It's a perfectly reasonable answer, and it's earlier than anything else so far. (Heck, it even bests out R.U.R., which I thought would be the earliest.) Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 6:19

1921: R.U.R Written by Karel Čapek

Rossum's Universal Robots is a Czech play which first coined the term "robot", although the robots themselves are synthetic organic beings rather than mechanical ones.

Initially used for labor, they rise up and destroy humanity.

R.U.R. was extremely well known (as evidenced by the adoption of the word "robot").
From the Wikipedia article:

R.U.R. quickly became famous and was influential early in the history of its publication. By 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages.

  • Is there "an AI" in R.U.R? If I remember correctly they don't act as "one" but as "many" Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 6:31
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    @AngeloFuchs that's true, but they are artificial, and they are intelligent. You could argue that it's a separate genre certainly, but it's still a vital part of the chain that created the genre. That's the problem with questions like this one. All stories are built on earlier stories. Its turtles all the way down. Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 6:41
  • @AngeloFuchs As I recall, Rossum's robots are individuals. So are the rebellious machines in "The Mind Machine" as far as I can tell from the review; I haven't seen the original. I guess we need the OP to clarify whether it has to be a single AI or whether a community of AIs is acceptable.
    – user14111
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 6:45

1947: "With Folded Hands . . .", a novelette by Jack Williamson, the first story in his Humanoids series; first published in Astounding Science Fiction, July 1947 which is available at the Internet Archive, as is the Dimension X radio play.

Wikipedia plot summary:

Underhill, a seller of "Mechanicals" (unthinking robots that perform menial tasks) in the small town of Two Rivers, is startled to find a competitor's store on his way home. The competitors are not humans but are small black robots who appear more advanced than anything Underhill has encountered before. They describe themselves as "Humanoids".

Disturbed at his encounter, Underhill rushes home to discover that his wife has taken in a new lodger, a mysterious old man named Sledge. In the course of the next day, the new mechanicals have appeared everywhere in town. They state that they only follow the Prime Directive: "to serve and obey and guard men from harm". Offering their services free of charge, they replace humans as police officers, bank tellers, and more, and eventually drive Underhill out of business. Despite the Humanoids' benign appearance and mission, Underhill soon realizes that, in the name of their Prime Directive, the mechanicals have essentially taken over every aspect of human life. No humans may engage in any behavior that might endanger them, and every human action is carefully scrutinized. Suicide is prohibited. Humans who resist the Prime Directive are taken away and lobotomized, so that they may live happily under the direction of the humanoids.

Underhill learns that his lodger Sledge is the creator of the Humanoids and is on the run from them. Sledge explains that 60 years earlier he had discovered the force of "rhodomagnetics" on the planet Wing IV and that his discovery resulted in a war that destroyed his planet. In his grief, Sledge designed the humanoids to help humanity and be invulnerable to human exploitation. However, he eventually realized that they had instead taken control of humanity, in the name of their Prime Directive, to make humans happy.

The Humanoids are spreading out from Wing IV to every human occupied planet to implement their Prime Directive. Sledge and Underhill attempt to stop the humanoids by aiming a rhodomagnetic beam at Wing IV but fail. The humanoids take Sledge away for surgery. He returns with no memory of his prior life, stating that he is now happy under the humanoids' care. Underhill is driven home by the humanoids, sitting "with folded hands," as there is nothing left to do.

P.S. In case it matters, the humanoid robots are under the control of a central brain:

"We are all alike, Mr. Underhill," the silver voice said softly. "We are all one, really. Our separate mobile units are all controlled and powered from Humanoid Central. The units you see are only the senses and limbs of our great brain on Wing IV. That is why we are so far superior to the old electronic mechanicals."

[. . . .]

"Naturally we are superior," it cooed serenely. "Because our units are metal and plastic, while your body is mostly water. Because our transmitted energy is drawn from atomic fission, instead of oxidation. Because our senses are sharper than human sight or hearing. Most of all, because all our mobile units are joined to one great brain, which knows all that happens on many worlds, and never dies or sleeps or forgets."


1930: Brain: A Play of the Whole Earth, a play by Lionel Britton. Earlier works have been mentioned in other answers, but this may be the earliest story in which a single AI takes over the world.

Excerpt from Everett F. Bleiler's review in Science-Fiction: The Early Years:

The play begins with a long straw-man argument between a knowing professor (science and rationality) and a librarian (emotion and stupidity) about the possibility of building a mechanical brain to unite the human race. Almost immediately after this conversation the professor and the librarian are killed in an accident, but the professor has filed his papers in the British Museum. One hundred and fifty years later, when the papers are found, they furnish the impetus for setting up a gigantic mechanical brain in the Sahara Desert. The work is accomplished by the Brain Brotherhood, a private organization of scientists.

About two hundred years later, businessmen and politicians try to take over the Brain Brotherhood, but are themselves absorbed.

The next scenes are set much farther into the future; the author offers tentatively thirty, forty, or fifty thousand years—take your choice. Brain now controls every aspect of human life—mating, vacations, and even death, for Brain periodically administers death tests. Those who fail are destroyed.

Brain no longer needs human assistants, is autonomous, and has expanded to cover much of the Sahara. Since it is concerned about the end of life and intelligence, it urges a concerted movement to explore the mysteries of space-time.

This quest must have failed, for in the final scene (set in total darkness), fifty million years later, Brain speaks in anguish. A dark star is approaching the earth, and all upon it will be destroyed by the collision. Brain for the first time is powerless. The end comes.

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    This, your third entry was published 11 years after another one of your answers, out of interest, why did you post this answer given OP is looking for the "earliest story"?
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 7:49
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    @Edlothiad Because, when I posted the this answer, it was not clear that the older stories were valid examples. If you will read the comments on other answers and on the question, there was some discussion about whether the question required takeover by a single AI as opposed to a community of AIs. This was clarified in a comment by the OP, and I would not have added this answer if I had seen the clarification. I am now considering whether to delete this answer.
    – user14111
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 7:57
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    Fair enough, was just asking after I saw your name pop up 3 times on the home page as "answered" on the same question :)
    – Edlothiad
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 7:59
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    Don’t delete it. May not be the “acceptable” answer, but it is a link to a valuable story in this genre.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 14:58

Another very early Robot Revolt story is said to be "Exile of Time" by Ray Cummings Astounding April, May, June, July 1931.

There was, in 2930, a vast world of machinery. The god of the machine had developed them to almost human intricacy. Almost all the work of the world, particularly in America, and most particularly in the mechanical center of New York City, was done by machinery. And the machinery itself was guided, handled, operated—even, in some instances, constructed—by other, more intricate machines. They were fashioned in pseudo-human form—thinking, logically acting, independently acting mechanisms: the Robots. All but human, they were—a new race. Inferior to humans, yet similar. And in 2930 the machines, slaves of idle human masters, had been developed too highly! They were upon the verge of a revolt! All this Tina briefly sketched now to Larry. And to Larry it seemed a very distant, very academic danger. Yet so soon all of us were plunged into the midst of it! The revolt had not yet come, but it was feared. A great Robot named Migul seemed fomenting it. The revolt was smouldering; at any moment it would burst; and then the machines would rise to destroy the humans



Jack Williamson's 1939 short novel After World's End deals with future in which an artificial intelligence (the robot Malgarth) has gained control over the galaxy's humans.

The plot summary, per GoodReads:

When adventurer, Barry Horn, is chosen to be the worlds first Rocketeer, the first human to set foot on other worlds, he is reluctant to accept the job until he receives a vision seemingly from his late wife telling him he must go or all humanity will be lost. When his mission goes wrong, he winds up in a suspended state. Conscious that he has failed, but unable to move, he has visions of mankind through the centuries. He witnesses his descendents going into space, creating the first living robot, sees the rise of the Robot Corporation, and its enslavement of man. When he is finally awakened, Barry finds that the knowledge he possesses after his long slumber is man's last hope to survive against the robots.

After World's End was republished later (in 1952), bound in a single volume with another of Williamson's short novels, The Legion of Time.


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