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The Robots of Westinghouse

on Tue, 05/14/2013 - 00:00

Elektro the Moto-Man
The word “robot” was first coined by Czech playwright Karel Capek for his 1920 narrative Rossum’s Universal Robots. Science fiction quickly became science fact a mere seven years later when employees at the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company created the world’s first physical robot. Herbert Televox was nothing more than an early telephone answering machine before being transformed into a futuristic metal man with a head, arms and legs, but the device ignited an industry and captured the imagination of America nonetheless.

Westinghouse designed numerous additional robots during the decades that followed, with the most famous being the seven-foot Elektro the Moto-Man, who premiered at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. In many ways, the early history of Westinghouse and the company’s fascination with robots are intertwined, and serve as a genuine precursor to the contemporary robotic research conducted at another Pittsburgh-based institution, Carnegie Mellon University.

In 2006, Scott Schaut, director and curator of the Mansfield Memorial Museum in Ohio, published Robots of Westinghouse: 1924 – Today, detailing the birth of Televox, the development of Elektro and the numerous robots that came in between. The original Elektro is now on display at the Mansfield Memorial Museum, discovered by Schaut in various boxes when he reopened the facility in 1999 after it had been closed to the public for 44 years. Although Westinghouse is based out of Pittsburgh, it was its facility in Mansfield that produced the robot, and Scott Schaut is arguably the premier expert when it comes to robots and Westinghouse.

The first Westinghouse robot began innocently enough when Roy James Wensley, creator of the aforementioned Televox, was commissioned by Westinghouse to present his apparatus at the opening of the Level Club in New York City. “My little frame of relays and wires would not make much of a showing on the stage of the great ballroom, so it was up to me to find a way to make the demonstration impressive,” Wensley said at the time. “My theme was to be an elaboration of the idea that the electrical industry had actually provided mechanical servants or ‘Robots’ in the form of numerous labor saving devices for home, office and factory. An article written by Waldemar Kaempffert appeared in the Sunday feature section of the New York Times and this can be credited for giving me the idea. He showed my original box, a crude apparatus, as a weird being with the box for a body and with articulated arms and legs.”

The image served as the blueprint for future robots created by Westinghouse as well. It was a design that also quickly captured the imagination of the American public, who came out in droves when the publicity that followed the redesigned Televox—nicknamed Herbert—led Wensley to embark on a coast-to-coast tour with his creation. Wensley was not through tinkering with the device, however, and soon found a way for it to recite simple phrases like “Televox speaking at Randolf 6400” and “This is the Televox calling for Main 5000.”

While Herbert Televox was a crude assemblage of cardboard limbs, head and torso connected to an electronic device, his “son” Willie Vocalite was an actual three dimensional robot that could move its arms, sit and stand, and smoke a cigarette, all through voice commands. Just as with its counterpart, “Mr. Vocalite” could likewise turn on or off any electrical unit connected to its supervisory control unit.

The new robot also had a more expansive vocabulary than its predecessor, thanks to various voice recordings that could be accessed via a 78 rpm record. Willie was created by Joseph M. Barnett, who had served under Roy James Wensley before setting out on his own at the Westinghouse Plant in East Pittsburgh and eventually relocating to Mansfield, Ohio.

“I would characterize Mr. Vocalite as being a great deal more than a ‘super toy,’” Barnett explained in 1931. “He is really a symbol of modern scientific research. Here is one mechanism that is readily understandable by the general public. We have concentrated various light and sound control devices and relays, some of which have actually been put to practical use in industry and others are yet in the laboratory stage. Mr. Vocalite, therefore, is in a large measure a device for public education. The idea of mechanical supermen has been a part of man’s thoughts for centuries. For example, the Colossus of Rhodes was the Ancient Greek’s idea of a man of metal. By taking advantage of this inherent idea to display certain laboratory developments, it is possible to bring them to the attention of a large audience.”

Not content with the technological achievements associated with the creation of Willie Vocalite, Joseph Barnett set out to design an even bigger, better robot for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. Just as Mr. Vocalite was an expansion on the original plans of Herbert Televox, Elektro the Moto-Man incorporated the basic designs of its predecessor while likewise adding one important new strait—the ability to walk. In fact, it was Elektro’s legs that were created first, but only after a great deal of experimentation. In the end, Elektro was only able to bend its left leg and in effect dragged its right while moving across the floor.

“He was the first true robot ever built that could—by voice command—walk, talk and count on his fingers,” Scott Schaut writes in Robots of Westinghouse in regards to Elektro. “He has a skeletal structure of gears, cams, motors, vacuum tubes and photo electric cells that allow him to operate. The main portion of his brain is outside the unit and was always behind the curtain or stage when he was performing. This control unit transferred the voice commands into electric impulses through the telephone relays and vacuum tubes through a power cord to Elektro’s lower right foot along with his electrical power cord.”

The World’s Fair was again held in New York City the following year, and rather than create an all-new robot for the event, Joseph Barnett instead decided to give Elektro the Moto-Man his own robotic best friend in the form of Sparko the Moto-Dog. Like his “master,” Sparko was able to walk, sit and stand as well as bark and wag its tail. Together Elektro and Sparko made the 1940 New York World’s Fair something to remember, although it would also be the last such event held in the Big Apple.

Elektro made numerous public appearances over the years that followed, including the Joseph Horne Company Industrial Exposition in Pittsburgh in 1949, and even had a small acting role in the 1960 B-movie Sex Kittens Go to College, starring Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld. Unfortunately Elektro slipped into obscurity shortly thereafter, disassembled and shipped from one Westinghouse Plant to another until he was finally discarded in Mansfield. It wasn’t until 2003, when Scott Schaut got a phone call from a museum colleague inquiring about the robot, that a search began in earnest for his whereabouts.

The parts were eventually found, and Elektro was again rebuilt and given a new home at the Mansfield Memorial Museum. The mighty Moto-Man may be a mere ancient relic compared to the latest generation of robotic creations from the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, but he was the original walking, talking, smoking robot nonetheless—and, given his ties to the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, is as much a part of Pittsburgh history as that of Mansfield, Ohio.

Anthony Letizia

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