The Tale of Elektro the Robot

Sometimes, stumbling through the internet can be a wonderful thing. For instance, I hadn't started my morning intending to read anything about the 1939 Worlds Fair or early robotics, but that's where I ended up, and I'm glad I did.

In my wanderings, I discovered the story of Elektro the robot, a marketing gimmick that ended up being a triumph for the Westinghouse engineering division. In 1924, looking for a way to convince the general public that electrical appliances were the wave of the future, Westinghouse assigned it's engineering department to come up with the first working robots. Their early attempts were fairly primitive, with the most advanced of the examples, Willie Vocalite, possessing movable arms, rudimentary speech, and the ability to sit, stand, smoke and fire a gun. Finally, in 1938, under the supervision of J.M. Barnett, the engineers designed their masterpiece, Elektro; a walking, talking "motoman" that was able to obey vocal commands from his operator.

 Willie Vocalite

"Using a combination of vacuum tubes, photoelectric cells, telephone relays and a 78-rpm record player, the 7-foot-tall, 300-pound Elektro performed tasks that astounded audiences across the country. He could walk of his own volition. He could count with his fingers. His photoelectric eyes could distinguish colors. He “smoked” cigarettes, using bellows built into the back of his neck. Properly situated, he could play the piano. And he had a limitless vocabulary, as long as he was supplied with fresh records (a local Kiwanis club used him to tell dirty jokes at their meetings). People tended to refer to Elektro using “he” or “him,” rarely “it.” His metal face had a strange wistfulness, a wise resignation to an immortal life, that made him seem more than machine."

Elektro was a huge hit at the 1939 World's Fair and thereafter enjoyed a twenty year career, hawking Westinghouse products, until his final appearance in the 1959 film, Sex Kittens Go To College with Mamie Van Doren, in which he played "Thinko" the college's super computer.

Disassembled in 1960, Elektro seemed destined for the scrap heap but, through a series of lucky events, all of Elektro's parts were found, cleaned and reassembled for an exhibit of early robots, in which he was the star, that ran until 2007 at the Mansfield Memorial Museum in Ohio.

You can read the entire account of Elektros life, death, and subsequent ressurection in this excellent article from The Cleveland Free Times. It's a much more in-depth account than you'll find here.

Other resources:
amateur film of Elektro at 1939 worlds fair (he appears at 15:30)
Tales of Future Past - David Szondy's Site
New Scientist Magazine


  1. I love the Art Deco /Metropolis look of it all.
    Glad to know he lived a good life, full of cigs and dirty jokes! I especially like the "bellows for smoking".

  2. TAD - Thanks for the comment! Yeah, I love that they rented him out to tell dirty jokes at local Kiwanis Club meetings. Hilarious!

  3. Why would they take that much effort to make him "smoke"? It seemed to be a common thread with robots back then from what you wrote. Weird. Throw in some liquor and he could be Bender v.0.1.

  4. Tim - Even babies smoked in the 1930s.

  5. How Cool! I'm gonna share this on FB so that my son and the rest of his HS Robotics Team (Team 1551, Naples, NY /F.I.R.S.T <--plug plug )will hopefully see and enjoy.

  6. Awesome! I didn't know anything about Electro. I love his design. And 48 electrical switches in his brain! awesome. So glad he got preserved and reassembled. Thanks for the story!

  7. Thanks for the comments everyone. This story makes me want to start a band called Willie Vocalite and the Motomen.