Elektro, the World's First Celebrity Robot

New Scientist has a neat article about Elektro, the world's first celebrity robot, and Jack Weeks, who is trying to rebuild the golden robot he found in the basement of his childhood home:

Elektro was built in 1937 at Westinghouse's plant in Mansfield, Ohio, as a promotional aid to advertise its household products. By pouring all its electrical know-how into the robot, the company created a machine that could walk, talk, smoke and perform counting tricks. Elektro rapidly became a star, and received a rapturous welcome at the New York World's Fair in 1939.

The incredible ingenuity of Elektro's design was topped off by his sleek exterior. There was no remote control. Instead, the robot relied on a combination of motors, photoelectric cells, telephone relays and record players to perform 26 preprogrammed routines, each one initiated by voice commands from a human co-star. These were spoken into a telephone connected to the robot's chest, where circuitry converted each syllable into a pulse of light and transmitted it to a photoelectric cell. A second circuit added up the syllables and triggered relays to operate the corresponding electromechanical functions: a command with three syllables, for example, would start the robot's routine, and four syllables would stop it. As part of these routines, Elektro would raise and lower his arms, turn his head, move his mouth, count on his fingers and even smoke a cigarette and puff out smoke.

The robot could also respond to questions by using relays to switch between a bank of phonographs playing 78 rpm voice recordings that were hidden behind a curtain. This gave Elektro a vocabulary of 700 words and an extensive repertoire of banter: "I am a smart fellow as I have a very fine brain of 48 electrical relays," he would tell the crowd. "It works just like a telephone switchboard. If I get a wrong number I can always blame the operator. And by the way, I see a lot of good numbers out in our audience today."

Link - via Gizmodo (who has a video clip of Elektro at the 1939 New York World's Fair)


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