History of Robot Wars

Robot Wars was a popular TV series broadcast from 1997-2004 in which teams created remote controlled robots designed to fight each other.

Origins and Early History

The concept for Robot Wars first came about in 1994 when an American designer, Marc Thorpe, designed and built a radio control robot vacuum cleaner to clean his house. The idea wasn’t successful but it did give him the inspiration for the first ever “robot wars” competition, which was held in the USA in 1994. Three similar events were subsequently held between 1995 and 1997, and Robot Wars was established.

The format of Robot Wars most people are familiar with is the UK version, made by TV production company Mentorn. They picked up the rights to the show in 1995, and started to re-imagine the original American format so it would work as a UK television show. This included the introduction of the Trials - two rounds of obstacle course type challenges in which the competing robots must finish in the fastest time possible, or score the most points.

Sir Killalot

House Robot Sir Killalot

Another significant element introduced to the UK version of Robot Wars was the House Robots. These robots were larger, heavier and allowed weapons the competitor robots were not, such as flame throwers. All the House Robots were built by the BBC Visual FX team, lead by Chris Reynolds. For the first war, Shunt, Matilda, Sergeant Bash and Dead Metal were built. Sir Killalot, Mr Physco, Growler and Cassius Chrome followed in later series. Their role was to patrol the perimeter of The Arena, and attack any competitor robots that were pushed into their zone.

Refbot debuted in Series 4 and was designed to act as a referee by breaking up robots that were stuck together, putting out fires with his built in fire extinguisher, keeping the House Robots in line and from Robot Wars Extreme Series 1 onwards, counting out immobile robots.

The Arena itself was given hazards that the competitor robots had to avoid. The most famous of these was the Pit of Oblivion (commonly referred to as The Pit), which maintained an important role in the Robot Wars format throughout its entire life.

UK Robot Wars Series 1-4 (1997-2000)

The first series of this new Robot Wars was filmed in 1997, at the Docklands in London and hosted by well known TV presenters Jeremy Clarkson and Philippa Forrester. Just 36 robots competed in six heats, with a six way melee held between the winner of each of the episodes at the end of the last program. The winner of this grand final was Roadblock, who became the first ever UK Robot Wars Champion.

The first series proved popular with viewers, and the BBC commissioned a second one in 1998. The scale for Robot Wars Series 2 was much larger than Series 1, with many more robots taking part. Two semi-finals were added to the format to narrow down the heat winners into the four robots required for the final.

Series 3 was filmed in 1999 and was the first series of Robot Wars to remove the Trials and focus solely on the battles. Some Trials, such as football and pinball, did return as separate side competitions with their own leader boards and tournament structure. Series 4 followed a similar structure to Series 3, however football was removed as a side event to be replaced with Sumo Basho. The arena and set was also redesigned, giving the show a lighter, more futuristic feel than the old darker, more industrial looking design.

Robot Wars Extreme Series 1 (2001)

Robot Wars Series 7 Champion Typhoon 2

Robot Wars Series 7 Champion Typhoon 2

Before the Series 5 of Robot Wars was broadcast a spin off series, called Robot Wars Extreme, was filmed. It featured the same robots seen in the main series but focused more on smaller, less serious competitions rather than one main one. The weight limit of the robots was also increased from 80kg to 100kg, in preparation for the Fifth War which was made later in 2001.

Some of the competitions that took place in Robot Wars Extreme were Tag Team Terror, Annihilator, All Stars, Challenge Belt, New Blood and Grudge Matches.

Robot Wars Series 5 Onwards (2001 - 2004)

With the weight limit increase, the technology and designs of the competitor robots started to increase rapidly. By the last series, the robots were so powerful and destructive the arena where they battled was no longer guaranteed to fully contain them and several fights had to be stopped so the crew could carry out repairs on the arena.

Throughout the run of Series 6 and Robot Wars Extreme 2 on BBC 2, Robot Wars episodes were constantly being rescheduled to fit around sporting events and in fact the last three episodes of Extreme 2 were never broadcast, except on the BBC’s digital channel BBC Choice (later BBC 3). Largely due to this the ratings began to decline and it was eventually announced that for Series 7, Robot Wars would move to commercial broadcaster Five.

Due to a lack of promotion many fans simply never knew the show continued after the sixth series. As a result, viewing figures fell dramatically and Five announced that they would not continue to air the programme after Series 7 finished.