Science history: Elektro the smoking robot
America’s first famous bot wasn’t exactly an advert for good health, or high-tech. Jeff Glorfeld reports.
In the burgeoning world of robotics, sparking revolutions in medicine, manufacturing – indeed, the very way we live – when we imagine a robot it’s still most likely as a rolling rubbish bin waving its mechanical arms and shouting “danger, Will Robinson”. Either that, or a supercilious gold-plated creature with a penchant for stupidity.
Machines such as Atlas, the Boston Dynamics parkour-performing humanoid, are impressive, but most of the advances in robotic technology are in the form of soft plastic devices or machines designed to perform repetitive industrial tasks.
A high-tech rubber tube – a soft robot that navigates its environment by growing – might save lives, but we still prefer our robots to walk and talk, or at the very least make cute bleeping sounds. Hello, R2-D2.
Our fondness for anthropomorphic bots reached some kind of, well, let’s call it a benchmark in the late 1930s with the creation of Elektro – a machine that was 210 centimetres tall, weighed 120 kilograms, and could walk, talk, blow up balloons, count on its fingers, and even smoke cigarettes.
Elektro was built by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Mansfield, Ohio, between 1937 and 1938, and debuted at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
It was exhibited around the US for many years as a promotional tool for the company, better known for its refrigerators and dishwashers than for creating artificial people.
It was made with a steel frame covered by an aluminium skin. Its photoelectric “eyes” could distinguish red and green light, and it used electric motors and telephone relays to carry out its actions. It had a vocabulary of 700 words, delivered by way of a 78RPM record-player installed in its body.
As described on the History of Computers website, Elektro responded to voice commands delivered via a telephone handset connected to its chest. Each command word set up vibrations that were converted into electrical impulses, which in turn operated the relays controlling 11 motors. A series of correctly spaced words determined each movement Elektro was to make.
The spoken words set up vibrations that were converted into electrical impulses by a grid-glow cathode tube. The impulse would cause a shutter to open or close in front of an electric lamp and send a flash of light across the room to a photoelectric tube in the control unit – Elektro's 25-kilogram “brain”.
It didn’t matter which words were used to give the command because the outcome was determined by the number of light impulses produced. One word or impulse put a series of relays in position to perform a movement. Two closed the electrical circuit and released current to the motors employed in the movement. Three activated relays to stop Elektro, and four returned the relays to their original positions.
Elektro’s novelty eventually waned and it slipped into obscurity, reportedly spending time as a minor attraction at a California amusement park.
But as with many an ageing former celebrity, Elektro staged a modest comeback and is now back home, on display at the Mansfield Memorial Museum, in Mansfield, Ohio, where it's billed as the “oldest surviving American robot in the world”.