The World’s First Celebrity Robot
The idea of the robot – an autonomous, even sentient machine – has been around for millennia. In Ancient Greek mythology, the blacksmith god Hephaestus, whose legs were injured as a child, crafted a pair of mechanical women to help him walk. From the Middle Ages onwards, various master craftsmen constructed increasingly sophisticated clockwork automatons that dazzled and bewildered audiences the world over, such as mechanical ducks that walked, ate, and defecated, and human figures that wrote, sang, and even played chess – and for more on that, please check out or previous video The 18th Century Chess Robot That Defeated Napoleon, Ben Franklin, and Countless Others. The word “Robot,” however, is of far more recent origin. Derived from a slavic word meaning “slave labourer,” the term first appeared in Czech playwright Karel Čapek’s [“cha-peck”] 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots, about a race of sentient artificial beings created for servitude who rise up against their human masters. But while the English lexicon was slow to catch up to the idea of the robot, technology was slower still, and it would not be until the digital electronics revolution of the 1960s and 70s that truly programmable and automatic machines would become a practical reality. In the late 1930s, however, the average American could catch a glimpse of this technological future in the form of a moonwalking, wisecracking, cigarette-smoking android called Elektro the Moto Man – the world’s first celebrity robot.
Created by the Westinghouse Corporation, Elektro was prominently displayed at the Westinghouse Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, alongside another of the Fair’s most popular attractions: the Westinghouse Time Capsule – and for more on that, please check out our previous video The Curious Case of the Crypt of Civilization. Elektro was the product of two decades of research by Westinghouse into automated electrical switching systems. In the early 1920s, a client contacted Westinghouse to request a means of controlling electrical substations remotely, saving their operators the trouble of travelling to the substations themselves to make minor adjustments. In response, Westinghouse engineer Roy J. Wensley invented the Televox, a device that could remotely control electrical switching equipment via coded pulses sent over ordinary telephone lines. This technology, which would form the basis for the dual-tone multi-frequency switching systems used in telephone networks for the next half-century, allowed operators to “phone in” to a substation and issue commands remotely using a set of pitch pipes or tuning forks.
In order to promote the Televox, in 1928 Wensley built a portable demonstration model and took it on the road. Ever the showman, Wensley decided to give the device a crude “body” made out of painted wallboard, creating the character of “Herbert Televox.” Wensely toured Herbert around the country, modifying him perform simple tricks like unveiling a portrait of George Washington in honour of the first president’s birthday. The gimmick was a hit, and over the following decade engineers like J.M. Barnett, Jack Weeks, and Harold Gorsuch at Westinghouse’s headquarters in Mansfield, Ohio would follow in Wensely’s footsteps and create a whole family of increasingly-sophisticated humanoid robots, including Mr. Telelux, Katrina von Televox and Rastus the Mechanical Negro, the latter of which was used, for some reason, to reenact a bizarre electronic version of William Tell shooting an apple off his son’s head. But Westinghouse’s ultimate robotic creation was Elektro, who made his debut in 1938.
Standing 2 metres tall, weighing 118 pounds, and clad in shiny bronze-painted aluminium, Elektro could not only perform 26 realistic human actions, but – astonishingly for the 1930s – respond to voice commands. In response to simple instructions spoken into a microphone by his handler, Elektro could walk, move his head and arms, count on his fingers, recognize different colours and – befitting his era – smoke a cigarette. This latter ability resulted in Westinghouse staff having to clean the tar out of Elektro’s mechanism after every performance, allegedly causing one engineer to quit smoking.
To the astonishment of many visitors, Elektro could also talk, starting every show by announcing:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be very glad to tell my story. I am a smart fellow as I have a very fine brain of 48 electrical relays.”
He also used his halting, monotone voice to crack corny jokes, calling his handler “toots” and responding to commands with a bewildered “who, me?” One of his favourite activities was challenging spectators to balloon-inflating contests, a challenge which – given he had an air compressor instead of lungs – Elektro seldom lost.
Visitors to the 1939 World’s Fair had never seen anything like it, and for many the dazzling demonstration seemed like something out of a magic trick. And in a certain sense, it was. For while Elektro was promoted on his ability to follow voice commands, 1930s electronics were not yet sophisticated enough to permit true voice recognition. Instead, Elektro was controlled by a series of coded pulses cleverly hidden within his handler’s command phrases, the robot responding not to the words themselves but the rhythm with which they were spoken. Each phrase was broken up into a sequence of 3, 1, and 2 syllables, with each sequence starting or ending a particular action. For example, the phrase “Will you come / down / front please?” would start Elektro walking forward, while “You have come / far / enough” would stop him. And the trickery didn’t stop there. Each of Elektro’s 26 different actions was hardwired in a linear sequence, with his handler reading off a fixed script; they could not be triggered in any other order. Electro’s voice, composes of 700 words, was also recorded in sequence on eight 78 RPM records hidden in his chest. Even his ability to walk was an illusion; in reality, Elektro moved on powered rubber rollers hidden under his feet, his knees bending to give the impression of walking. So, in effect, Elektro moonwalked everywhere.
Despite this technical sleight of hand, Elektro was a smash hit, and performed daily to packed crowds throughout both seasons of the Fair. During the 1940 season the Elektro was even given a companion: a mechanical dog named Sparko, who could walk forward and backward, sit, lie down, wag its tail, and bark.
With the closing of the Fair and the outbreak of WWII, Elektro was wound up in the basement of Westinghouse engineer Jack Weeks, who saved the robot from being melted down for scrap. It is here that he became the unlikely playmate of Weeks’ son, also named Jack. As the younger Weeks recalled in a 2012 interview:
“I opened one box, and there was the head of a robot there. So we started prying with my dad as to what was in the other boxes. He showed us … and we managed to put the head on the torso and played with it as children, wheeling it around in games of cowboys and cops and robbers.”
After the war, however, Elektro was dusted off and taken on tour to promote Westinghouse products, making appearances in department stores across the United States. Having previously appeared on film in Westinghouse’s promotional feature The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair, Elektro made his television debut in 1951 on an episode of the game show You Asked For It. In 1958 Elektro wound up as an exhibit at Pacific Ocean Park near Los Angeles, where he was spotted by a Hollywood talent agent and cast as S.A.M. Thinko in the 1960 B-grade comedy Sex Kittens Go to College opposite Mamie van Doren. Unfortunately, this would be the last high-profile appearance for the world’s first celebrity robot, for shortly thereafter Elektro was crated up and returned to Mansfield. There he disappeared and was presumed lost until 2004, when Jack Weeks’ brother bought a house and discovered Elektro’s head in a box in the basement. The rest of him turned up in a nearby barn. Elektro was subsequently restored and is now on permanent display at the Mansfield Memorial museum alongside a replica of Herbert Televox, his crude wallboard ancestor.
Though Elektro’s limited repertoire of 26 actions and 700 words may seem quaint and laughable next to the cutting-edge power of modern robotics, the wisecracking, smoking android of yesteryear did much to shape the depiction of robots in popular culture and to inspire a sense of wonder and possibility that made much of our modern high-tech world possible. Without Elektro, Maria from the 1927 film Metropolis, and other pioneering pop-culture robots, it is possible we would never have had C-3P0, Wall-E, or even our beloved Siri and Roomba.
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Marsh, Allison, Elektro the Moto-Man Had the Biggest Brain at the 1939 World’s Fair, IEEE Spectrum, September 28, 2018, https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/dawn-of-electronics/elektro-the-motoman-had-the-biggest-brain-at-the-1939-worlds-fair
Jacobs, Emma, America’s First Celebrity Robot is Staging a Comeback, NPR, April 2, 2012, https://www.npr.org/2012/04/02/149850779/americas-first-celebrity-robot-is-staging-a-comeback?
The History of Elektro of Westinghouse, History Computer, https://history-computer.com/the-history-of-elektro-of-westinghouse/
Pierini, David, Once-Famous Robot Lives Quietly Away From the Limelight, Cult of Mac, February 26, 2015, https://www.cultofmac.com/313544/famous-robot-lives-quietly-limelight/
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