from the Curator's Office:
B9 Builders Club
cast of the 60's TV show Lost in Space pose with
the robot in a publicity photo.
(9/06) One of the great things about the internet
is that even if you have a fairly bizarre hobby or interest that
maybe only one out of one hundred thousand people share with you,
you can still find other people on the web with that same unusual
interest or hobby. Why? Because with estimates of the number of
people connected to the internet exceeding one billion, even if
only one out of 100,000 individuals are into the same thing as
you are, that still gives you 10,000 potential members of your
Now, this can be a bad thing if your interest is
something like being a terrorist and blowing up buildings. However,
for people with slightly more tame hobbies, it's a great boon.
This brings us to the B9 Builders Club.
Now, you ask, what is a B9 and why would you want
to build one? To answer that question we need to travel back to
1965 to a rather schlocky, but fun television show called Lost
in Space (LIS to those in the know). It was one of several
science fiction TV productions of that era produced by Irwin Allen
(The others being Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Time
Tunnel and Land of the Giants). The show had the Robinson
family going to colonize another planet, traveling on a flying
saucer shaped space ship called the Jupiter II. When enemy agent
Dr. Zachary Smith tries to sabotage the flight, and gets trapped
on board, his extra weight throws the ship off course and they
become hopelessly lost, which is, of course, the premise of the
The Jupiter II's crew includes not only the
Robinson family, their pilot, Major West, and the wayward Dr.
Smith, but also an environmental control robot. During the series
the robot isn't really called anything much more than "robot."
However, some people have done research to show that the proper
name is the "B9."
There are a lot of people who grew up in that era,
who watched the show as kids and really liked the robot. Despite
its unimaginative name, it became one of the most endearing members
of the cast. Many of the scripts surrounded the relationship between
young Will Robinson (played by Bill Mummy), Dr. Smith (Jonathan
Harris) and the B9 (Bob May with the voice of Dick Tufeld). Over
the course of the series the robot turns from dull automaton to
friend and protector of Will and foe of the slightly slimy Dr.
Smith. Smith, in a running gag during the show, takes to continually
insulting the B9, giving him such classic monikers as the "bubble-headed
the Bubble-Headed Booby
What kid wouldn't want a B9 to pal around with?
Polar Lights came out with a model kit that allowed you to construct
an eight-inch-high replica of the B9. I built one as a kid and
later bought another to build as an adult. For some people, though,
that eight-inch model just isn't enough and only a full-sized
version will suffice. That's where the B9 Builders Club comes
into the picture. The club (http://www.b9robotbuildersclub.com/)
dates from the late 90's and has gone through several revisions.
Mainly, it is a place where people interested in building full-sized
versions of the B9 can get advice, exchange ideas, buy or trade
parts, and show off their creations. The club currently has almost
400 members, though it isn't clear how many of those people are
finished building their full-sized replica, are actively working
on one, or have gotten part-way through one that now sits in some
dusty corner of the basement.
Place works on his scratch built robot. (Photo
courtesy Lew Place).
Make no mistake - building a full-sized B9 is no trivial weekend
project. The robot's costume stood over six feet tall as it had
to be large enough to contain an actor. It was also covered with
an array of blinking lights, turning antennas and other little
parts, to boot. Buying a licensed, ready-built, detailed, full-scale
B9 will set you back about $25,000. Most of the members of the
club, despite the complexities, however, decide to do it on their
To get a better perspective on the organization,
I decided to talk to Mike Joyce, who currently runs the club.
Joyce who's a former Air Force pilot with a background in math
and computer science. Like so many of the members, Joyce was a
LIS fan and thought it would be fun to build a reproduction of
the B9. "I've always built things as a hobby," he told me in an
He apparently found that he liked this hobby so
much he turned it into a business by acquiring the rights to build
the robot from the current LIS owners. His company, B9
Creations, is working on producing one-hundred and fifty copies
of the robot. The fully finished versions, in addition to having
the blinking lights and turning antennas, are capable of rotating
their torso, moving their arms, and speaking 500 lines of dialog
recorded by Dick Turfeld who was the voice of the original robot
on the show. The first batch of ten robots went to customers earlier
this year. If you are interested in buying one of his B9's, head
off to his site and put your name in. Just don't get your heart
set on one. The reservation list for all one hundred and fifty
is already filled. You'll only get a chance to buy one if someone
changes his mind and drops off the list.
Parts or From Scratch?
Joyce not only builds, but along with several other
members, acts as a vendor for difficult-to-make parts. The robot's
torso, because of its curving shape, is particularly hard to do
by yourself and get right. A fiberglass version from one of the
vendors makes it simpler but will cost you anywhere from $650
to $1000. Other parts available include a clear acrylic bubble
to house the brain, rubber arms, claws, treads, legs, lights,
hooks, etc. The fact that much of the robot can be bought significantly
speeds up the process of putting one together, but considerably
increases the price.
Many of the members of the club take pride in being
able to build their robots from scratch without spending money
on parts. I was particularly taken by pictures of a B9 made by
a gentleman named Lew
Place. It looked as good to my eye as the professionally built
B9's, but he used almost no vendor-supplied componets. I contacted
Place and asked him if he was a big fan of the series. "Absolutely,"
he replied. "I lived it every week as an eight-year-old in 1965."
And the robot? "I wanted one since I was a kid, then discovered
others were building incredible replicas and thought I'd give
it a shot."
Place's troublesome torso was made of wood, mat board and
Bondo. (Photo courtesy Lew Place).
Place decided to avoid vendor parts both to save
money and as a construction challenge. Even given this restriction,
he had his robot almost complete in just three months. He estimates
he spent thirty-five hours a week working on it, however, something
that raised a few eyebrows around the house. "Everybody thought
I had gone off the deep end until they saw it all lit up and working.
It now comes up in conversation at least twice a day."
The most difficult part of the project was the torso,
which he created using mat board and wood. The difficult curves
he shaped by laying Bondo (a putty-type material used to repair
dents in cars) over the surface and sanding until it was the right
shape. "I still can't believe I pulled that one off with the materials
I used," he notes. In the end he spent a total of $1000 to get
his B9. The one part he couldn't fabricate on his own was the
glass bubble for the head, which cost him around $300 from a vendor.
Since then, however, he's spent hundreds of more hours and more
money working on improvements. He's even building a second B9
for a friend, though this time he bought the torso from one of
the parts suppliers.
B9's Older Brother
Seeing all these people building these great replicas
inspired me. Could I build a robot? To tell you the truth, as
much as I like the B9, I'd much rather construct a different science
fiction icon, Robby the Robot, from the 1956 film Forbidden
Robby was actually in quite a few films and even
appeared as a guest on Lost in Space where he tried to steal the
hearts of the Robinson Family away from the B9. In the script
this turns out to be a ruse, of course, to kidnap the family and
sell them to aliens. Fortunately the B9 rescues the family by
putting Robby out of action before he can carry out his dastardly
with costar Anne Francis in a publicity photo for Forbidden
Planet. How come no club?
If Robby and the B9 were portrayed in that episode
as antagonists, it was certainly a case of sibling rivalry. The
two are truly brothers as they were both designed by Hollywood
art director Bob Kinoshita and have similar features, including
glass bubbles to house their brains and neon lights that glow
when they speak.
If there is a club for B9 fans and builders there
must surely be one for Robby, right? Well, unfortunately not.
This seems strange. Even that upstart R2D2 has a builders club.
Why not Robby? Does this mean that Robby fans are less rabid than
B9 fans? To find out I decided to contact Fred "Robotman" Barton.
Mr. Barton has been fascinated by movie robots since he was a
kid and has fashioned a career around producing replicas and restoring
some of the original robot props so they can go into museums or
private collections. Currently he is the only person licensed
by Warner to make full sized copies of Robby.
Barton thinks that part of the problem is the complexity
of building this particular automaton. "The B9 is much easier
to build out of household items and Home Depot kind of parts than
Robby, who has hundreds of machined parts and must be sculpted,"
noted Barton. "It is impossible to build Robby with pre-fab commercially
available parts. Plus, there is a huge support system for B9 in
the form of the club to help even the most inexperienced builder
to assemble the bubble-headed booby. Without the club there would
be little or no B9's in any form."
Barton, who helped found an early version of the
B9 club back in '97, tried to put together a support group for
Robbie, too. "I sponsored a Robby builders club for a while in
the 90's with Warner Brothers' permission. They have since pulled
the plug on a builders forum, or kit/parts or any kind of club
surrounding their property, i.e., Robby." According to Barton,
Warner has plans for the robot and worries that having a club
would devalue him. He is, after all, a star, something confirmed
by his having his own entry in the Internet
Movie Database. Well, at least it's nice to hear Warner has
plans for my cybernetic hero. Perhaps hosting a late-night talk
Could I construct
a good a B9 as Lew Place's scratch built one?(Photo
courtesy Lew Place).
So, if I want to build a replica of Robby I'm on
my own. No plans, parts or advice from a club. Perhaps if I really
want one I will have to plunk down the 16 grand or so to buy one
from Barton's company. From my point of view it would be a sound
investment, though I doubt my wife would agree.
Perhaps a better route would be to construct his
younger brother, the B9. If I join the club, I can get lots of
help and advice and even a break on the cost of vendor-bought
parts. They can even put me in contact with Dick Turfeld, who
(for a modest fee) will record my own personal messages for my
robot to say. I can imagine the B9 sitting in my finished basement
next to the 52" home theater system. What a great conversation
piece to have around when I invite friends over to watch some
old science fiction movies. Maybe I should head out to Home Depot
and get some plywood and Bondo right now. Oops! Forgot. My wife
reminded me I'd better go and work on finishing the basement first...
Copyright Lee Krystek 2006.
All Rights Reserved.