Do you recognize this metal man? Elektro was one of the world’s first robots, seen by 3.7 million people at the 1939 World’s Fair. The curious lined up for hours to watch a performance in which he walked, talked, and smoked cigarettes. “Elektro was the marvel of his age,” says Andy Masich, president of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, which just unveiled a replica of the robot as part of its permanent collection.
Elektro was originally built by Westinghouse, then the world leader in robotics thanks to its Televox unit which—with a twist on telephone technology—could convert a person’s voice into electronic pulses. By speaking into a telephone handset, it was possible to trigger any of Elektro’s 12 motors, thereby controlling him. A five-syllable command (Elektro, come here) prompted him to walk; one syllable (stop!), and he halted. Elektro’s speech drew from a small repertoire of sayings recorded on 78-rpm records. Still, to dazzled audiences Elektro appeared to possess near-human communication skills.
Following the fair, Elektro hit the road to promote Westinghouse dishwashers and fridges. The company envisioned Elektro as the ultimate appliance, a domestic helper. “If you treat me right, I will be your slave” was one of his canned 78-rpm messages. But the clumsy giant robot never made his way into the home. Fact is, at 7-feet-tall, Elektro was simply too unwieldy for most houses, let alone household chores, says Jeffrey Trinkle, a roboticist at Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute. “Smoking was a great party trick, but practical robotics [like factory arms in manufacturing plants] carried the day.”
After World War II, Elektro entered a period of decline. He did a stint promoting a California amusement park and appeared in the 1960 B-movie Sex Kittens Go to College opposite Mamie Van Doren. Then it was off to a Westinghouse plant in Mansfield, Ohio, where his head was removed and given to a company engineer as a retirement gift.
What is left of the original—the partly-functioning head and body—now resides at the Mansfield Memorial Museum. “He’s a piece of history,” says Scott Schaut, the museum’s curator. “He’s not going anywhere.”