“Robot” is a household word in America, and it’s all thanks to a foul-mouthed, smoking robot near Futurama.
Over 1,000 years before Bender will ever have the chance to bend his first I-beam, another robot was cracking-wise and talking it up with the ladies: Elektro. The Westinghouse motoman was the darling of the 1938 New York World’s Fair (the same fair that included the General Motors “Futurama” exhibit), and for a generation of Americans, he was what a robot should be.
At seven feet and 300 pounds, the gilded robot was an impressive sight for audiences excited for a googie future. Elektro stood tall in the Westinghouse Electric Corporation pavilion at the World’s Fair, greeting visitors with snarky comments and impressing them with his ability to talk, walk and – yes – smoke. (Remember, this was a time when cigarette ads sometimes included doctor recommendations.)
Each afternoon, a Westinghouse employee would introduce Elektro as the latest in a long line of Westinghouse robots. Through conversation, the robot would walk around, count his fingers and smoke cigarettes, all while throwing light-hearted jabs at his “controller” or at the audiences (he was especially fond of the ladies). All with a brain of only 48 electrical relays!
If Elektro’s abilities seem too advanced to be true, they may have been. Only in the last few decades have scientists developed robots as smart as insects and small mammals, much less ones that can carry a conversation or call you “toots.” Likewise, it wasn’t until the 1990s that scientists developed a truly bipedal robot.
Even though Elektro’s speech was a pre-recorded vinyl and his “walking” consisted of rolling on wheels while one leg moved, he was still a marvel to behold.
The robot could easily have been forgotten after the fair lights dimmed, but the son of one of Elektro’s creators kept him running. Carrying fond memories of playing with the robot as a child (in between performances), Jack Weeks saved Elektro from the scrap heap, and after years of restoration, was able to put him on display.
Over the decades Elektro has sung club songs and acted in soft-core stag films.
As Thinko, “the greatest electronic brain in the world,” Elektro stared in the raunchy low budget feature Sex Kittens go to College. He made the character his own, and how many other robot actors got to dance with a bevy of pastie-wearing starlets?
Most recently he silently greeted visitors at the Mansfield Memorial Museum.
Elektro wasn’t the only Westinghouse robot of course, others included Sparko the dog and others, but Elektro was the one that ignited the public’s imagination. After Elektro, robots were everywhere: toys, movies, books and cartoons.
Elektro may have been forgotten by the popular consciousness, but his legacy lives on.