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Elektro: 1939 smoking robot saved from oblivion

Long before C-3PO and Wall-e, there was Elektro, a smoking, talking, and walking robot that wowed the World's Fair in 1939. Meet the seminal robot that has been rescued from the scrap heap of time.

Elektro in 1939
Elektro in 1939 shows off his early brushed-aluminum skin.
Scott Schaut/Mansfield Memorial Museum

You can walk into any toy store and buy a robot these days. No big deal. Back in 1939, a robot was an incredible oddity. That's why crowds flocked to see Elektro, a robot built by Westinghouse Electric for the New York World's Fair.

The talking Elektro described himself as a "smart fellow" with a "fine brain" consisting of 48 electrical relays that worked like a telephone switchboard.

Elektro was a bit of a smarty-pants, making lame jokes, smoking cigarettes, and blowing up balloons. Elektro could walk (slowly), move his mouth, and turn his head. This was pretty advanced stuff for the day. The 7-foot-tall creation took voice commands via a telephone handset.

Elektro lies low
Elektro disappeared into obscurity after touring the country and then passing time as a minor attraction at a California amusement park. Elektro's story could have ended there, but the big metal guy is now in line for a revival. Elektro's head turned up in a basement and his body in a barn.

Elektro replica with old Elektro
Schaut's Elektro replica stands in front of the real thing. (Click to enlarge.) Scott Schaut/Mansfield Memorial Museum

The robot was pieced back together and is on display at the Mansfield Memorial Museum, where it's billed as the "oldest surviving American robot in the world."

Scott Schaut, curator of the museum, spent three grueling months building an Elektro replica by hand. The full-size replica is set to go on tour to other museums this year. Even the paint has been matched to Elektro's original color.

A robot's revival
"I think that people are interested in Elektro because they really don't think of robots like Elektro in 1939," Schaut said in an e-mail to Crave. Schaut literally wrote the book on the history of Westinghouse robots. "The Robots of Westinghouse" is available through the museum.

"Most people have seen old movies and they know that there is a man inside moving him," Schaut said about the popular images of vintage robots like Robby the Robot from "Lost in Space."

There was no person hidden inside Elektro. He worked through vacuum tubes, motors, and pulleys. It was an impressive engineering achievement, especially considering the available technology in the 1930s.

If you can't make it to the Mansfield Memorial Museum, Schaut notes that the Elektro replica will be available to rent for special events. This would be way cooler than hiring a motivational speaker for your next corporate retreat.

(Via NPR)