In the realm of human imagination, the concept of robots—a term born not too long ago—has fascinated us for centuries. The idea of a self-sufficient, potentially intelligent machine has deep roots that stretch back to ancient times. Let’s embark on a journey to explore the fascinating history of robots, from mythical mechanical beings to early automata and the emergence of the word “robot” itself.

Our fascination with robots can be traced back to Greek mythology, where Hephaestus, the god of blacksmithing, is said to have created two mechanical women. These automatons were designed to aid him in walking when he wounded his legs as a young god. The ancient Greeks were already captivated by the idea of artificial beings.

As we move through history, we encounter remarkable creations in the form of clockwork automatons. Craftsmen from the Middle Ages to the modern era crafted intricate mechanical ducks that could perform astonishing feats like walking, eating, and even simulating the process of digestion. These ingenious clockwork creations showcased human ingenuity and paved the way for future developments in robotics.

Automatons of Skill and Talent

The world of clockwork automatons didn’t stop at ducks; it extended to human-like figures with remarkable talents. These automatons could write, sing, and even engage in games like chess. One particularly famous 18th-century chess-playing robot astounded audiences by defeating notable figures such as Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. These early examples hinted at the potential of machines to mimic human skills.

While the concept of robots had been brewing in human imagination for centuries, the term “robot” is relatively modern. It first appeared in the 1920 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots” by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, originally titled “Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti,” introduced the world to a race of mechanical beings created for slave labor who eventually gain sentience and rebel against their human creators. Although the term “robot” didn’t gain widespread use until the 1960s and 1970s, it marked the beginning of a new era in robotics.

The First Celebrity Robot

In the late 1930s, amidst the backdrop of growing interest in robotics, a remarkable creation named Elektro the Moto Man made its debut. Developed by the Westinghouse Corporation, Elektro was not only a technological marvel but also the world’s first celebrity robot. Let’s delve into the captivating story of Elektro’s creation and its impact on the world.

The Westinghouse Time Capsule

Before we dive into Elektro’s tale, it’s essential to understand the context in which it emerged. The Westinghouse Time Capsule, another creation by the Westinghouse Corporation, was a significant attraction at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. This monumental event showcased cutting-edge technology and innovations of the time. To learn more about the Westinghouse Time Capsule, refer to our earlier video, “The Curious Case of the Crypt of Civilization.”

The Televox and the Birth of Remote Control

The journey to Elektro’s creation begins with a customer’s request for a way to remotely regulate electrical substations, eliminating the need for physical visits by operators. In response to this challenge, Roy J. Wensley, an engineer at Westinghouse, conceived the Televox. This device could manage electrical switching equipment from a distance using coded pulses transmitted over regular telephone lines. Operators could now “phone in” commands to substations, making remote control a reality. This groundbreaking technology would lay the foundation for the dual-tone multi-frequency switching systems used in telephone networks for the next five decades.

Wensley’s innovative Televox needed a charismatic face, and so, Herbert Televox was born. Wensley, a showman at heart, took Herbert on a cross-country tour, introducing the public to the wonders of remote control. This mobile demonstration model became an instant hit, even participating in minor stunts like unveiling a painting of George Washington during celebrations.

The Family of Humanoid Robots

The success of Herbert Televox paved the way for further advancements in the world of humanoid robots. Engineers at Westinghouse’s Mansfield, Ohio headquarters, including J.M. Barnett, Jack Weeks, and Harold Gorsuch, continued Wensley’s work. This creative team gave birth to a whole family of humanoid robots, each with its unique characteristics. Among them were Mr. Telelux, Katrina von Televox, and Rastus the Mechanical Negro, the latter known for his peculiar electronic rendition of William Tell beheading his son.

In 1938, Elektro, the crowning achievement of Westinghouse’s robotic endeavors, made its grand entrance. Standing at a height of 2 meters and weighing 118 pounds, Elektro was a sight to behold. Made of shiny bronze-painted aluminum, this remarkable creation could perform 26 lifelike human actions, making it a sensation of its time.

Elektro’s Astonishing Abilities

Elektro’s repertoire of abilities was nothing short of astonishing for the 1930s. In response to basic vocal commands, transmitted through a microphone by its handler, Elektro could walk, move its head and arms, count to ten, identify various colors, and even light up a cigarette—an act that led to one engineer quitting smoking due to the challenges of cleaning tar from Elektro’s mechanisms.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of Elektro was its ability to speak. At the beginning of each performance, Elektro would address the audience with a cordial greeting: “Good evening, esteemed guests. Tell me my tale, and I will be happy to do it. I am an intelligent man because my brain is a complex network of 48 electrical relays.” Despite its mechanical nature, Elektro would engage in light-hearted banter, refer to its handler as “toots,” and respond to orders with a comically confused “who, me?” Elektro even took part in balloon-inflating contests, despite lacking actual lungs.

To the awe of spectators, Elektro’s performances resembled something out of a magic show. While it was advertised as a robot that responded to voice commands, the technology of the 1930s couldn’t accurately recognize spoken words. Instead, Elektro was programmed to respond to the rhythmic patterns of command phrases, subtly encoded with coded pulses. Each syllable sequence of 3, 1, and 2 signaled specific actions, with phrases like “Will you come / down / front please?” initiating forward movement and “You have come / far / enough” signaling a halt.

Unveiling the Secrets

Beneath Elektro’s polished exterior lay the secrets of its performances. Eight 78 RPM records hidden in its chest contained Elektro’s pre-recorded voice, comprising a vocabulary of 700 words. Elektro’s “walking” was a clever illusion, achieved by bending its knees to make it appear as if it was moving on powered rubber rollers buried under its feet. The result was a mesmerizing moonwalk that captivated audiences.

Elektro’s popularity led to the addition of a companion during the 1940 season of the Fair—Sparko, a mechanical dog. Sparko could walk both forward and backward, sit, lie down, wag its tail, and bark, further enhancing the spectacle of the Westinghouse exhibit.

Elektro’s Post-Fair Adventures

After the conclusion of the 1939 World’s Fair and the outbreak of World War II, Elektro faced an uncertain future. However, Westinghouse engineer Jack Weeks stepped in and saved Elektro from certain destruction by storing it in his basement. Here, Elektro found an unlikely playmate in Weeks’ son, who shared the same name.

In a 2012 interview, the younger Jack Weeks fondly remembered their unconventional childhood toy: “I found the robotic head inside one of the boxes I opened. In order to find out what was in the other boxes, my siblings and I began to question my dad. As kids, we made it our own by assembling the parts dad showed us, and we loved playing ‘cowboys’ and ‘cops and robbers’ with it.”

Elektro’s journey continued even beyond its days at the Fair, leaving a lasting legacy in the world of robotics.

The story of Elektro the Moto Man, the world’s first celebrity robot, is a testament to human ingenuity and innovation. In an era when technology was rapidly evolving, Elektro captured the imagination of audiences and showcased the potential of machines to mimic human actions. Elektro’s performances, while based on clever deception, left a lasting impact on the history of robotics, paving the way for the remarkable advancements we witness today. As we delve into the past, we gain a deeper appreciation for the journey of robotics, from its early mechanical roots to the sophisticated machines of the modern age.