Electro, the smartest robot at the 1939 World’s Fair

Today robots often “work” in industry and even data centers – for example, replacing failed hard drives or destroying failed ones. Today we want to tell you how the human use of such devices began – the conversation will be about a robot named Electro.

“Ladies and gentlemen! It will be with great pleasure that I tell you my story. I’m actually a smart guy. I have a wonderful brain with 48 electrical relays! “

This is how, in 1939, Electro presented himself to the guests of the New York World’s Fair. He was 2.1 meters tall and weighed almost 120 kilograms. And Electro didn’t lie about his thinking abilities: the “robot” was able to show 26 different “numbers” – he walked around the stage, talked, performed primitive calculations and even sang a little. Electro’s vocabulary was about 700 words. To be honest, the answers were pre-recorded on a disc and played in accordance with the program. But this fact did not diminish Electro’s ambition: from time to time one could hear the phrase “my brain is much larger than yours” from him. What’s true is true – in the “head” of the robot was 25 kg of electronics.

Electro belonged to a family of robots that grew out of Westinghouse’s switchgear business. By the early 1920s, the company had succeeded in developing fully automatic electrical substations, and engineers were looking for ways to improve them. In the process, Televox emerged, a set of control units that led Westinghouse to create robots.

Televox, developed by Roy J. Wensley, allowed control of switches in substations by transmitting a specific set of sounds. One part of the Televox was placed on the dispatcher’s desk of the central power station, and the other was on the substation itself. The Televox control unit, using a special generator, formed a sound code and transmitted it to the destination unit via a telephone line. The receiving device had to “pick up the phone”, process the incoming signal, and then take the appropriate action, for example, close / open a certain switch.

Wensley saw many useful applications for his invention in the field of public utilities. He even pounded the doorsteps of the company’s advertising department to show the device to the general public – in vain. Nevertheless, the funds already allocated for the project were enough to create a portable demonstration model of Televox and some marketing. In a 1928 advertisement, Televox was shown as “the newest tool to replace the servant in the future.” Moreover, Wensley understood: words are words, and a box with relays and wires is not at all what needs to be shown to an inexperienced public. It is necessary to pack the product nicely.

On February 21, 1928, the debut of his first brainchild, Herbert Televox, took place. The robot was presented at the New York Level Club. The machine very approximately imitated a person: a square head, articulated arms and legs, and the electronic filling was placed inside a wide-chested “body”. The presentation was a success. It turned out that if you give an incomprehensible electronic device a human appearance, give it a name and personality, it will cause a storm of sympathy among the public. Humans were captivated by the promise of robotics.

Enthusiastic reporters wrote that Herbert could use the remote control to control the entire household. Wensley had to work hard to correct these rumors. However, the publicity of the technology pushed him to further research. The US military, for example, has become interested in using Televox to remotely fire weapons. Small-scale airports, which did not have 24-hour staff, wanted to use it to automatically illuminate runways when aircraft approached at night.

In 1929, Wensley was happily transferred to the Westinghouse Appliance division (development and marketing of refrigerators), where he was able to find like-minded people. Katrina van Televox, Rastus and a few other new robots were soon born. Each subsequent car moved smoother, sounded better and acquired additional skills.

Electro became the crown of creation. The robot was built by J.M.Barnett, Jack Wicks Sr., Harold Gorsuch, and several other Mansfield engineers. The new car had an aluminum body, movable limbs and a cast head. Small electrical components were shamelessly borrowed by the builders from their own factory. Among them there were even power cords from irons, coffee machines and waffle makers and vacuum cleaner wheels.

After the success among the guests of the World Exhibition, Electro went on a large-scale tour of the country. On tour, the robot promoted Westinghouse household appliances, where without it. But the end goal was not advertising at all: Electro’s creators were pioneers of intelligent robotics. What previously could only be found in science fiction novels has become a reality. The public loved Electro, and his popularity could help an entire industry.

The robot was controlled by voice. The operator commanded into the microphone, and Electro obediently followed the order. Feel the catch? In fact, Electro could not understand human speech. Voice commands consisted of a well-defined sequence of syllables, which were transformed into electrical impulses with the help of a glow discharge thyratron. These impulses opened the shutter in front of a special light bulb, which sent a flash to the photosensitive element in the robot’s control unit, located behind the stage. Then the received signal was transmitted directly to the “brain” of the robot and interpreted by it according to the programmed.

According to K. Bruce Hardy, who toured with Electro in 1942–1943, all teams that started or finished a trick followed a 3 syllable-1 syllable-2 syllable pattern with pauses between parts. For example, the phrase “Po-doy-di / -ka / syu-yes?” launched the forward movement mechanism. The phrase “Po-go-di / you / came” stopped the robot. The operator could change the wording within this template: “A te-be / years / how-to” and “So-ka-zhi / your / age [пальцами]»Run the same program. However, the operators did not experiment with the trick order, lest they inadvertently crash the system.

As for walking, Electro did not walk in his usual way. During the execution of this command, he bent his leading leg at the knee and rode across the stage on wheels.

Like all other humanoid Westinghouse robots, Electro smoked in his spare time. During the performance, the assistant carefully inserted a cigarette into the lips of the robot and set it on fire. The robot produced a series of short puffs and the cigarette was taken out. After each performance, the operators had to painstakingly clean out the tar and sediment from the “smoking lungs” of the machine. Note that smoking robots exist to this day, but they do not serve for the amusement of the public, but help in the study of diseases of the respiratory system.

In 1941, another hole was drilled in the upper lip of Electro – for another, completely harmless trick. In the middle of the performance, the robot challenged the audience: who will be the first to inflate and burst a balloon? We think it makes no sense to say that Electro, equipped with a powerful compressor, won 99% of the time.

Almost at the very beginning of his career, Electro got a four-legged friend, the dog Sparko. The robo pet could move back and forth, sit down, perform a stance, turn its head, wag its tail, and even bark. Sparko’s creator, Don Lee Hadley, is rumored to have designed the dog after Bonnie’s own Scotch Terrier. There were other robotic dogs, but none of them survived to our time.

Electro left some mark on the film industry. So, back in 1939, he starred in the Westinghouse promo film “The Middleton Family at the New York Exhibition.” Also, the robot appeared in the TV show “You asked for it yourself.”

In 1958, a casting agent spotted the aging robot at the Westinghouse exhibit in Pacific Park near Los Angeles, where it was playing a minor role in a promo scene for the nuclear submarine Nautilus. This accident allowed Electro to finally play the smart university robot Thinko in the B-movie Hot Kitties Go to College.

After a short stay in Hollywood, Electro was disassembled, packed in boxes and sent home to the manufacturers. For many years he, once a fantastic hero and favorite of the public, spent in complete oblivion. It was only by a miracle that he escaped the fate of becoming scrap metal – straight from the landfill, an indifferent junk dealer sent him to the Memorial Museum in Mansfield, Ohio, where he was restored. The robot is now part of the permanent exhibition. Museum director Scott Shout has amassed an impressive archive of material related to robot development at Westinghouse. According to him, the archive is constantly growing, but, unfortunately, a huge part of this history is lost forever. “Every day, historical artifacts are melted down or simply rotted in a landfill, no matter how valuable they are to society, descendants and history,” he writes in his book Westinghouse Robots, 1924-Present. The pages of the manuscript contain numerous photographs and promotional materials depicting Electro’s history.

In the final chapter, Scott Shout makes a curious suggestion: What if Electro had a robotic girlfriend? At least six sketches of female robots are known to exist at Westinghouse. They had characteristic body features, different hairstyles, facial expressions, and also … ahem, the parameters of the chest and hips. In addition, it was planned to dress them up in individually tailored dresses.

But history does not know the subjunctive mood. The female version of the robot, the so-called Electra, was never built.

And it’s a pity – such a robot would obviously make a lot of noise!


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