Elektro the Moto-Man, One of the World's First Celebrity Robots

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In a last-minute move to put off doing laundry and to extend time spent with my unexpected brunch companion, I set off for Washington D.C.'s National Building Museum on Saturday morning to see an exhibit made entirely of LEGO bricks. Instead of a encountering a large-scale model of Chicago's John Hancock Center built with the plastic memories from my childhood, I walked through the door and came face-to-face with thousands of screaming children. There for Discover Engineering Family Day, the kids were making slime, exploring electricity, designing flinkers (whatever those are), and giving me a headache.

Thinko.jpgI ducked into the first open exhibition, which proved to be more interesting than necessary -- I just wanted some quiet -- and was awed by a replica of Elektro the Moto-Man, an enormous anthropomorphic robot whose existence I had no previous knowledge of. Given all the recent talk about robots -- Ken Jennings vs. IBM's Watson on Jeopardy!; Time magazine's cover story on the Singularity, "2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal;" our own cover story "Mind vs. Machine;" and a host of other references -- my run-in with Elektro felt preordained.

Designed and built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Ohio between 1937 and 1938, Elektro stands seven feet tall and weighs more than 250 pounds, according to its (his?) Wikipedia entry. Elektro can smoke (yes, smoke), blow up balloons, move his arms and head, and speak about 700 words using the 78-rpm record player embedded in his massive chest. That's not nearly enough to compete in a trivia competition with humans, but it is impressive considering the year of construction.

Still, with slow, hesitant speech and a bulging body made with steel gears and aluminum sheets, Elektro looks downright silly standing there in front of you. Look how far we've come in 70 years. When I burnt some toast the other day, my smoke detector starting screaming at me in speech more recognizably human than that which emanates from Elektro's tinny interior. Instead of racing to the kitchen, I thought, "Who's in my apartment?"

But at a rate that may graph even steeper than that which shows the progress we've made over the past three generations, we've come to expect it. My smoke detector does some pretty incredible things, but I never stop to recognize and appreciate that the way the families that saw Elektro did. They were blown away by his ability to speak -- "My brain is bigger than yours" -- and respond to commands. Unveiled at the 1939 New York World's Fair, Elektro was paraded around North America as a promotional tool for Westinghouse throughout the 1950s.

Below, a clip from Westinghouse's promotional film, "The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair," which shows Elektro walking across the stage at the urging of the demonstrator before telling the story of its creation. The complete film (54:44) can be viewed on the National Building Museum's "Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s" blog.

"Designing Tomorrow: America's World's Fairs of the 1930s" runs through July 10, 2011, at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. Image: Elektro as "Thinko" in Sex Kittens Go to College (1960), Wikimedia Commons.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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