On the 9th April 2019, the roboteering community in the UK learned of the sad news the Rex Garrod, one of the founding fathers of robot combat in the UK, had passed away the day before at the age of 75 in Suffolk. He had kept a low profile in the last few years of his life owing to his dementia, but that will not diminish his achievements inside and outside the arena. In a way, roboteers like myself seemed to treat Rex with almost the same reverence for his condition in the same way motor racing fans treat Micheal Schumacher’s current comatose condition; almost saint-like, his work his blessed objects of worship to be carried to sacred locations, his words carry the weight of biblical authority and experience, yet his persona was anything but holier-than-thou. Whether Rex would have preferred this informal holy status to just plain anonymity, we will never know.
For many of us roboteers, many may still remember Rex’s brief introduction to TV in “The Secret Life of Machines”, although I can’t comment too much on that show as I wasn’t actually born by that point! My first encounter with Rex before Robot Wars in the UK wasn’t just on our TV shows, his creations were in our TV shows, working on some of the most notable creations of the early to mid 1990’s while working for the BBC in Special Effects for TV, Film and Advertising. His most famous creation? Brum! This lovable little remote-controlled car had all sorts of fun shenanigans in Brum’s namesake hometown (Birmingham, in case you were wondering) and became something of an icon of 90’s culture alongside the remnants of Mr. Blobby, Catchphrase’s mascot, Britpop, Blur, etc. etc.. He also made objects for Teletubbies as well. Rex loved his engineering projects, and these early shows was the beginning of his public engagements on TV as far as many of us were concerned.
The next show was (partly) why ARC Robotics exists. We all grew up watching Robot Wars, and Rex may not have been part of the original team that got Robot Wars onto TV, but he did have some of the most innovative and technically brilliant fighters of his day. He was one of the most memorable roboteers in the early days. He entered under Team Cassius, named after the famous phrase of Cassius Clay (AKA Muhammed Ali) – “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Although Rex never won a series, he is remembered far more for his other achievements, inlcuding his innovation, his sportsmanship and his attitude to robotics, and all these characteristics live on in the sport today. Recyclopse and Robot the Bruce were made for series one and both got to the grand final before losing to my personal favourite, Roadblock. At the time I didn’t realise Recyclopse was made out of entirely recycled bits (and was a pioneer in flippers too), which is what we should all aspire to do! Now, before I continue (as Ali), I must confess that as a small child I hated Cassius. The idea you could flip an opponent out of the arena to me was breaking the rules (Recyclopse notwithstanding)! In my mind you had to smash your opponent into submission, not leave them lying turtle. However, I completely missed the point of Cassius. It was (much like its namesake) an innovator, way ahead of almost any machine. Its deadly combination of shape, speed, armour and weapon lent itself to being one of the best designed robots of its era, possibly of all time, and looking back on the show, perhaps it should have won the Second Wars, although that final is one of the best to watch – a see-saw of initial domination by Cassius followed by the incredible recovery and victory by its vanquisher, Panic Attack. Many other flippers base their design (incidentally or otherwise) on the simple wedge and arm that Rex used. Many robot lineages can also trace themselves to this House of Cassius (or Garrod). Chaos 2 was built by George Francis, with a significant input by Rex, became UK champion in the Third Wars and Fourth Wars. Who knows what Rex may have achieved if he had been convinced to continue to fight robots in a safer environment.
But it wasn’t just the design skills that Rex is remembered for, although this in itself is a major factor. He was a stickler for health and safety and with good reason. His comments about the lax attitude to the safety of competitors is well known within the roboteering community and serves as a warning for those who do not comply. This little gem from the Robot Wars Wiki, for example, relates to the rules for the first wars – “…most of them stupid, and written by some twerp who sits behind a desk, has never got his / her hands dirty, and never made anything, let alone a sophisticated machine like a robot. And furthermore, so intoxicated with self importance and will not seek help from professionals or listen to experts, who could help them.”. Clearly he didn’t mince his words! The First Wars nearly killed Jeremy Clarkson (the presenter) because Dead Metal’s disc flew off and embedded itself in the wall just a few inches from him, so he may have had a legitimate point. Alas, the show’s management did not appear to listen to his words of advice (of which there are also many, too many for an obituary) on roboteering, so he didn’t come back after the Third Wars due to the number of accidents behind the scenes. Today we have moved on considerably from those days, so that safety is now the number one priority, particularly in live shows (which seems ironic given the “combat” element of combat robotics, but then again we all want to go home safe!). But while he was involved in fighting robots, his other great trait came shining through – his generosity with his time, energy and passion in helping other roboteers mend their robots, or trying out new parts for their robot. This was of course never shown backstage. Again there are multiple examples that other teams have with ancedotes of working with Rex of his generosity and insight. However, his sportsmanship certainly shone through when on camera, laughing as he was driven into the pit by Panic Attack despite being the favourite, always smiling despite his defeats, and always being humble in victory. His enthusiasm certainly shone through in the pits! It seems a shame that none of his work on Robot Wars went rewarded, although Cassius was inducted into the Combat Robot Hall of Fame in 2007.
After robot wars Rex continued to occasionally go into schools to show off robots and special effects for children. He was also a part time speedway rider for the Ipswich Witches and Scunthorpe. He was also well known in his local area for his many inventions, of which a selection are displayed in his obituary in the Ipswich Star. This included a giant water-powered clock and some of his incredible props, like his life-like sawn-off hand!
However, many of us will remember Rex not as a genius in making things, or his enthusiasm in inspiring the next generation into robotics, but on his innovation, generosity and incredible machines. However, he kept a relatively low profile, and perhaps he would like it that way. I propose that he is certainly more than worthy of an award in his name in combat robotics for innovation in roboteering, or for sportsmanship. His qualities inside and outside of the arena live on today in the current robot fighting we have, and that is what we owe to Rex.
Rest in Peace. Float like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee.