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"As the rate of technological development speeds up, the gap between science fiction and what we’re living now is getting narrower all the time."
- Richard Morgan

Mentanicals  
  Robots capable of mentation - i.e., thought.  

Then I saw the cylinders! They came gliding from one of the openings in an upright fashion, and this was the singular thing about them, that their means of locomotion were not apparent to the eye. There were no wheels or treads. They appeared to skim the stone or concrete with which the square was paved, rather than touch it. Oddly repellant they were, and intimidating, and I loosened the automatic in its shoulder holster — the small one I always carry — and prepared for emergencies, though bullets were useless against the cylinders as I was to discover later.


(Mentanicals cover art)

THE cylinders were smooth things about five feet tall, of a dulled metal hue, with here and there shining spots which constantly waxed and waned in color. They were machines — I thought of them as machines — and it was reasonable to suppose that behind them lurked a human intelligence. The people of the future, I thought, have invented devices unknown to us of the Twentieth Century; and it came over me how wonderful it was going to be to meet those superior people, talk to them, gaze upon the marvels with which they had surrounded themselves.

So I went to meet the cylinders.

Their soft whispering meant nothing to me at first. Nor at first did I suspect the source of the gentle pressure running over me from head to foot, as the cylinders came close. Then with an odd thrill of apprehension I realized that the curious cylinders were handling, examining me, that from them emanated an electrical force, a manipulation of invisible rays which functioned as organs of touch. Alone, bewildered, trying vainly to comprehend the strange situation, I had to call on every ounce of my self-control to remain calm. Yes, I was afraid — only the fool says he never is — but more afraid of being afraid, of showing fear. I still believed that behind those cylinders must lurk a human intelligence. The genius of the race seemed to run along the line of making robots. There was the "metal brain" at Washington, that told of the tides, the electrical eye which watched a thousand industrial processes, a myriad automatic devices functioning with little or no supervision from man ; and of course I had read the play "R. U. R.," science fiction stories dealing with the future of machinery, and it was inevitable — strange, and yet not so strange — that I should expect an advancement, a realization of all those things in the future. Man the inventor, I thought, had achieved them; and for a moment this belief seemed borne out when I saw the men.

The cylinders seemed watching attentively, listening. I don't know how, but they gave me that impression; and now I noticed that the shining spots on them were glowing intensely, that their whispering was not a steady but a modulated sound. As if it were language, I thought, language! and a strange dread came over me and I shivered as if with cold.

From The Mentanicals, by Francis Flagg.
Published by Amazing Stories in 1934
Additional resources -

Think of the cool sci-fi robots that are cylindrical and float across the stage - this might be the earliest description that started the whole thing. Of course, it also might be that it was easy to suspend a physical robot from a fine wire, making it appear to float across the stage.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from The Mentanicals
  More Ideas and Technology by Francis Flagg
  Tech news articles related to The Mentanicals
  Tech news articles related to works by Francis Flagg

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