In 1961 Hughes Aircraft had a new technology that it wanted to introduce to the public. That desire led to one of LIFE’s stranger photoshoots.
The invention was the Mobot, and this motorized robot performed a valuable function. Workers at nuclear sites could use the Mobot’s mechanical arms to operate machinery remotely and without fear of exposure to radioactive materials. A story in Popular Mechanics in 1960 talked about how “Mobot Mark 1, the first mobile remote-controlled handling machine for radiation labs too dangerous for man, flexed his steel arms recently and showed how he can move into `hot’ areas and perform intricate tasks.”
The concept is obviously a valuable one—a lifesaver, really. Today remotely operated robots continue to be a valuable tool for handling potentially lethal tasks such as bomb disposal. Which makes the LIFE photoshoot for the robot all the more curious. In the photos by the great J.R. Eyerman, the Mobot is depicted not as handling a dangerous assignment but helping a model go through her beauty routine. The Mobot and its mechanical arms help the model do her nails and comb her hair. The Mobot’s most helpful contribution was to zip up the model’s dress.
The zipping scenario was a smart one, because women getting into dresses sometimes do need an extra set of hands, and human ones aren’t always available. But as the site Fanboy.com noted in a story on the Mobot, the real absurdity of the demo was that zipping a dress required not only a room-sized machine and a human engineer to operate it.
Even if the Mobot wasn’t the most efficient way to get that zipper up, the shoot did point up a problem for dress-wearers that the world of technology has not entirely forgotten. In 2016 at a fashion conference, a paper argued that automated zippers would be a great help to the infirm and the elderly, The year before the MIT Robotics Lab had developed a prototype of an automated zipper that lived inside the dress. One thing is clear: if automated zipping ever becomes a part of our lives, it is much more likely to be invisible that room-sized.