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.
I 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.