Chinese farmer and robot inventor cranks into gear

BEIJING Fri Jan 9, 2009 7:16am GMT

BEIJING Jan 9 (Reuters Life!) - Wu Yulu has burnt down his house, sprayed himself with battery acid, driven his wife to contemplate divorce and openly admits he loves a few contraptions made from scrap metal more than his own children.

But the self-educated farmer is happy, because the robots he has dedicated his life to creating are finally winning him enough fame and cash to put ploughing aside forever.

The unlikely inventor is pulled around the village where he was born by a walking, talking, life-size model which he calls his thirty-second son.

"I'm a rickshaw-pulling robot. Wu Yulu is my Dad, I take him out about town," its rubbery lips proclaim to passers-by, who pay no more attention to the strange vehicle than to the bikes and scooters rattling past it.

His earlier efforts were more humble, the first just a simple walking contraption made of wire and cogs which took its first steps in 1986.

As whimsical as they are ingenious, later creations with bodies made of plastic barrels or cloaked in cloth skirts can pour tea, offer smokers a light for their cigarette or climb walls and shuffle across the ceiling on magnetic feet.

"Since I was young I never smoked, drank or played cards. My only love was to use my brain, especially with machines. I was fascinated by things that moved," Wu told Reuters in a courtyard scattered with cogs, parts and his metal "children".

"You could say I love my robots more dearly than my own sons," says the serious 48-year-old, whose human offspring have long since left home.

Wu's children may have been keen to seek their own fortunes after one experiment gone awry left their home in ashes, but their father could not keep away from his inventions.

"After I burnt down the house I did feel very guilty because my wife and children didn't even have a place to live," Wu said.

"I thought about giving up robots, but in the half year when I wasn't making them I felt itchy. I just couldn't not do it."

FORAGED TECHNOLOGY

The cash shortages common to most Chinese farmers meant that Wu's early robots were made almost entirely from foraged scrap, but as his ambition grew so too did his costs.

He borrowed from reluctant friends and relatives, racking up a debt that at one point hit 90,000 yuan ($13,170), a small fortune in rural China.

And the price was not only measured in yuan. He also sprayed himself with battery acid and burnt his face and chest in an explosion that put him in hospital.

He earned respect and a bit of cash from sceptical neighbours by doing odd mechanical jobs for them, but long-suffering wife Dong Shuyan nearly gave up on her eccentric husband.

"In the past he destroyed the house and we had no money, and at the time I really was going to leave with our sons. He spent so much," she said with a wry smile.

But after increased media attention both inside and outside of China and a spat of awards, Wu's luck has changed and he has managed to win back both his money and his wife's heart.

He now works with various universities and companies developing robotics, has travelled China to show his creations, and been proclaimed "China's cleverest farmer inventor" in a national competition organised by a local television station.

"In the end it wasn't all wasted," said Dong. "Plus now he's become quite well known, so in fact I feel quite proud." (Writing by Emma Graham-Harrison, editing by Miral Fahmy)