The Daily Retro: Saw At The Fair


Meet Elektro the Robot

Built in 1937, 8171223_f260

Elektro the Robot truly was one of a kind.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Westinghouse Electrical Laboratories was in direct competition for a good deal of their business with a very strong adversary indeed— namely, General Electric.

General Electric, a direct descendent of Thomas Edison’s ‘Edison General Electric Company’ had been a leader in electric and electronic research throughout the early part of the century, and Westinghouse was looking for a public project that could out do anything GE had come up with.

Specifically, Westinghouse wanted a robot, and they started serious research on it as far back as 1924.

Their first metal robot was called “Herbert Televox”, developed by Roy Wensley at Westinghouse’s East Pittsburgh plant…

It was primitive, but it could rise from a seated position, respond to commands given in the form of whistles, and switch appliances on and off.

WillieVocalite‘Herbert’ went through several development stages, and over the course of several years evolved into a robot called “Willie Vocalite”, whose most distinguishing feature was his painted-on mustache,

… and then in 1935, into “Willie Westinghouse”, developed by Joseph Barnett. ‘Willie’ was the first robot to respond to verbal commands, not whistles.

He was also the first to demonstrate the ability to ‘taste’, and fire a gun.

Here’s a description of ‘Willie’ from the Lacrosse Tribune , March, 1932:sentiment

” A glimpse into the future will be presented when “Willie” Vocalite, Westinghouse mechanical man, makes his first appearance in this city. Willie Vocalite has been, called the “scientific marvel” by electrical engineers and scientists all over the United States. This famous mechanical man will come to this city as the guest of the Food, Home and Flower Show at the Avalon ballroom March 12-14.
As the appearance of this scientific marvel never fails to attract capacity crowds, the management is making every effort to see that every person in this territory who wishes to see the exhibition will get the opportunity. Willie Vocalite is the latest addition to the already famous family of Westinghouse mechanical men. He is now on tour through the country, displaying his talents to hundreds of thousands of persons who are interested in seeing what steps science is taking to advance the wants of man.

While an interesting toy, the several incarnations of ‘Willie’ still didn’t really live up to their expectations —

In those days, companies would display the leading edge of their technologies at World’s Fairs, and with the 1939 New York World’s Fair upcoming, Westinghouse engineers, under the lead of J.M. Barnett, went to work — using the things they had learned with ‘Herbert’ and ‘Willie’, to create something that would genuinely impress the public with their ingenuity.

What they finally came up with was Elektro the Robot.


Elektro was built by Westinghouse engineers at their Mansfield, Ohio plant, in 1937, primarily as a promotional item for upcoming World’s Fairs, home shows, technology displays, etc.

Internally, he had an aluminum frame, with an outer skin of steel– steel was also used to construct the steel gears, cogs, motors, etc.

Despite all the steel internal parts, and the fact that he was 7 feet tall, Elektro only weighed about 265 pounds….elektro

A remarkable achievement, due in part, of course, to the use of aluminum on his exterior case…

…. a still expensive and relatively rare material to be used in such an application.

And the public loved Elektro.

Perhaps in hindsight, he seems very primitive, but for circa 1938, he was really something special.

One of the things people liked about him was he seemed interactive.

He could mechanically respond to verbal commands spoken to him through a telephone receiver hooked up to a “Televox” unit, which converted the sound of a voice into electronic pulses.

For instance, one pulse (spoken syllable) told him to stop an action, while 6 pulses would command him to get up and walk.sparko

Elektro could also ‘speak’: using a pre-recorded voice, his limited vocabulary ( about 700 words, in total ) relied on an internal 78 RPM record, but never mind.

He liked to tell cornball jokes, and crack wise, too.

His favorite lines were:
If you treat me right, I will be your slave“,
That’s right, Toots“,
My brain is bigger than yours “.


I’m wondering what other parts w…

………. never mind about all that .


He could move his arms and legs, blow up balloons, and do all kinds of other robot stuff.

He could play the piano, and could distinguish colors.

And, like most folks in the late thirties, he smoked cigarettes.

He appeared at the 1939 World’s Fair with his little electric robot dog, Sparko.

It’s thought that more than 3.7 million people saw Elektro and Sparko that year.

They usually caused quite a stir when they appeared together.

Andy Masich, of the Heinz History Museum in Pittsburgh called Elektro, ” … the marvel of his age “.

adAnd when it was all said and done, Elektro enjoyed almost three decades of robo-celebrity.

He did a stint in the fifties promoting Palisades Amusement Park….

All his robot charisma even got Elektro a role in a Hollywood movie, ( not to mention a stag film )

The movie starred Mamie Van Doren, was made in 1960, and was called “Sex Kittens Go to College”.

He starred as a robot named “Thinko”.


I imagine the role was quite a stretch for him, but well worth the effort if he got to hold Mamie’s hand some.

Ohhhh nurse…..
……………………… we need a oil transfusion right away !!!

Mamie Van Doren

PS….. if you’re really interested in what Elektro was doing after his career hit the skids, well, check out this video.


It is, by the way, NSFW.

Just sayin.