Thursday, December 25, 2008

The return of Elektro, the first celebrity robot

WHEN Jack Weeks first saw the racy comedy in the 1960s, he was taken aback to see his childhood friend in a leading role. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that his buddy was actually a golden 2.5-metre-tall humanoid robot called Elektro.

Elektro was one of the world's first celebrity robots. Built by electrical manufacturer Westinghouse, and with electrical controls that were remarkably advanced for the time, he drew huge crowds at . During the second world war, the robot was stored in the basement of the Weeks's family home in Ohio, where he became 8-year-old Jack's playmate. After the war, Elektro went back on the road, touring the US to adoring crowds, but his star soon began to wane. Shortly after 1960 and the release of Sex Kittens - in which Elektro starred alongside blonde bombshell Mamie Van Doren and a chimp called Voltaire - the robot's career hit a low. Not long after that, Elektro disappeared entirely.


But Weeks never forgot his golden friend and thanks to a series of lucky breaks, he eventually managed to track down and acquire Elektro's head, torso and limbs. Now in his seventies, Weeks sees the robot as a monument to Westinghouse's pioneering work, and is close to returning his long-lost playmate to full working order. This is their unlikely tale.

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."

By 1940, Westinghouse had beefed up its show with an electric dog called Sparko that performed tricks under Elektro's command. However, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Westinghouse cleared its factory for war production and Elektro was sent home with John Weeks, one of the engineers who maintained him. In 1942, his son Jack discovered the giant mechanical man in the basement and did what any 8-year-old would do: he dressed the gold robot in hats or feathers and rushed home from school every day to play with him in games like cowboys and Indians. But when the war ended, his friend disappeared. "I came home from school one day and the basement was empty," Weeks recalls. "I never imagined that I would see it again."

For the next decade or so, Elektro was kept busy on promotional tours all over the US in a truck dubbed the Elektromobile. Weeks grew up and, like his father, became an engineer and even worked part-time at the Mansfield plant. But by the late 1950s, Westinghouse and the public had grown tired of Elektro and he was shipped off for display at an amusement park in Oceanside, southern California.

The next time Weeks saw Elektro was in (tag line: "You never saw a student body like this"). Elektro played Thinko, "the greatest electronic brain in the world". In one scene, Thinko shares a bourbon with Voltaire the chimp while watching a succession of strippers, including Brigitte Bardot's sister, Mijanou. Elektro, with jaunty hat and tight sweater, moans repeatedly and flashes his eyes. "The film's a riot," says Weeks.

Elektro eventually returned to Westinghouse, but with the advent of modern computers, the company lost interest in the robot, and its body and legs were packed in their crates and forgotten. Sparko disappeared too, and, sometime in the 1970s, Westinghouse executive Harold Gorsuch, their creator, was given Elektro's head as a retirement present.

This turned out to be a stroke of luck for Weeks. By coincidence, his brother moved into Gorsuch's house a few years later and they found Elektro's head discarded in the basement. Boyhood memories flooded back and Weeks kept Elektro's head on his coffee table for years, always hoping that he might eventually recover the robot's body. He had to wait almost 30 years.

In 1990, Westinghouse closed its Mansfield plant and Weeks lent the company Elektro's head for the farewell party. A photo of the head in a local paper brought a man called John McDivitt to Weeks's workshop. McDivitt claimed that he had bought the Elektromobile at a Westinghouse auction in the mid-1980s and in the back he had found two crates containing limbs and a torso. Weeks was amazed, and rushed to McDivitt's cluttered shed where he delved among the crates. Disappointment soon set in: he didn't recognise the torso - it was in very poor condition and was silver rather than gold. McDivitt wanted a fortune for it, so Jack reluctantly walked away.

That disappointment lived with Weeks for a long time and in 2004, after a local museum asked whether it could borrow the head for an exhibition, he decided to take a second look at the robotic body he had rejected. It turned out that McDivitt had died some years earlier so Weeks tracked down his brother-in-law. By chance he still had the crates, and this time Weeks was able to get another look at the objects. By now the silver paint had worn off revealing a gold finish, as well as some of the other features that had appeared to be missing on first sight. It was Elektro after all.

This time Jack bought the parts for $500 and restoration began. Eventually, Weeks moved Elektro to a small museum in Mansfield so that others could share the robot, and some of those who worked on Elektro in the old days, now in their 80s and 90s, came to visit. So far the robot's arms and head can move, but Weeks doesn't have the voice systems, and the drive unit is missing from the legs. In fact, he has almost given up hope of finding these parts. And now, just four years after reuniting Elektro's head and body, Weeks is preparing to part with his treasured companion once and for all: he wants Elektro to go to the in Dearborn, Michigan, where he could be seen by up to 1.5 million people each year. Yet he still holds some hope that Elektro won't travel alone: the robot's trusty friend Sparko may still be crated up in someone's garage, he suggests, and it could suddenly show up, mechanical tail wagging. "Who knows," he sighs, "but wouldn't it be great? It would make me really happy to see them together again."

Noel Sharkey is professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, UK


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