Elektro, The Oldest U.S. Robot

By Roland Piquepaille

If you happen to be around Ohio this coming fall, don't miss an exhibit at the Mansfield Memorial Museum featuring the 7-foot-tall Elektro, the oldest U.S. robot with its 65 years. "Elektro is the only survivor of a group of eight robots created by Westinghouse in Mansfield between 1931 to 1940 for several hundred thousand dollars each," according to this article from the Plain Dealer, Cleveland (free reg. is sometimes necessary). Back in 1939, Elektro was able to walk, talk, raise and lower his arms, turn his head and move his mouth as he spoke. It used a 78-rpm record player to simulate conversation and had a vocabulary of more than 700 words.Thousands of people enjoyed Elektro at the New York World's Fair in 1939. It even appeared in a long-time forgotten movie, "Sex Kittens Go to College," also known as "The Beauty and the Robot." Read more...

Other information about this exhibit is featured on this page at the Mansfield & Richland County Convention & Visitors Bureau website.

"Elektro was the first true robot ever built in the United States," said museum director, Scott Schaut. "Built in total secrecy by Westinghouse, Elektro was promoted as the ultimate appliance. In fact, it was thought that Elektro would one day be able to cook, do laundry and entertain the children."

But let's return to the Plain Dealer article.

[After being restored for $500 by Jack Weeks, whose father, John, helped create the robot in Mansfield for Westinghouse,] Elektro is back home -- repaired, polished and drawing crowds to the Mansfield Memorial Museum. Recently, he was taken off display for repairs, but he will return in September.
"We had more than 4,000 people come to the museum to see Elektro since September," said Schaut. "It was wildly popular, and a good way to get people to visit the museum."
Jack Weeks with the restored Elektro Here Jack Weeks, 70-year old, stands close to the 7-foot, 65 year-old Elektro (Credit: Mansfield Memorial Museum).

Elektro, like the other robots built by Westinghouse seventy years ago, was pretty expensive, but also brought back money.

Elektro is the only survivor of a group of eight robots created by Westinghouse in Mansfield between 1931 to 1940. The company predicted the robots -- built for an estimated cost of several hundred thousand dollars each -- would be the ultimate household appliances, handling daily drudge work such as washing dishes and cutting the grass.
[But] "they made millions off him," Schaut said. "People came in from all over the world to see him at the New York World's Fair. In the late 1940s and through the 1950s, Elektro traveled around the country from appliance store to store. People flocked to see him. It was a hugely successful promotion."
Elektro at the New York World's Fair in 1939 If you want to know more about Elektro, David H. Szondy has assembled photos and drawings from the past on this page. This one shows Elektro at the New York World's Fair in 1939 (Credit: David H. Szondy).

Later, Elektro went to Hollywood.

Elektro did what many Californians do -- he wound up in the movies. He played Thinko, a giant robot that handicapped horses, in the 1960 film "Sex Kittens Go to College (1960)," also known as "The Beauty and the Robot," with Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld.

Now that you're a fan of Elektro, you might want to buy an image. From this page, you can buy one from Corbis. But be sure to have your credit card with you. A small version (7.29 x 9.11 cm) costs $90 while a larger one (17.09 x 21.36 cm) goes for $200! Personally, I think these prices are outrageous.

Sources: Michael Sangiacomo, The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, February 9, 2005; and various websites

Related stories can be found in the following categories.

Famous quotes containing the words oldest and/or robot:

    This fond reiteration of the oldest expressions of truth by the latest posterity, content with slightly and religiously retouching the old material, is the most impressive proof of a common humanity.
    Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

    The person who designed a robot that could act and think as well as your four-year-old would deserve a Nobel Prize. But there is no public recognition for bringing up several truly human beings.
    C. John Sommerville (20th century)