• Michael Sue

ELEKTRO The Magnificent Smoking Robot

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

Everybody knows that cigarettes are bad for you.  They make your teeth turn black, give you bad breath, and most importantly, they increase your chances of respiratory disease and cancer.   But during the 1940s and 1950s, nobody knew that, and cigarettes were not only encouraged, but were seen as healthy.  Not only did they relax you, but they also served as a status symbol of sophistication, maturity, and as a staple of American society.  In fact, if you attended the World’s Fair in New York in 1939, you’d see just how accepted cigarettes were marketed to the general public when you would come across Elektro the Moto-Man, probably the most famous smoking robot of all time.

Although definitely not as popular today as they were then, World Fairs captured the imagination of not only the American public, but of the world.  It showcased just how creative and technological mankind had and could become.  In fact, no where was this more apparent than when you watched Elektro smoking multiple cigarettes at one time and cracking jokes to the audience.

Built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which had long rivaled Thomas Edison’s own electric company for control of the U.S. electric currents market between Thomas Eddison and Nicolas Tesla, Elektro was built between 1937 and 1939 in Mansfield, Ohio, and premiered at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which was advertised as the “World of Tomorrow.”  Towering at seven feet tall and weighing 265 pounds, Elektro looked like a humanoid male robot.

Viewing Elektro, you may be fooled into thinking that there was a real person inside and that Elektro wasn’t a real robot at all.  But that would be false.   In reality, Elektro was nothing but real, and actually performed 26 different functions and tricks, including walking, talking, counting, and singing.  It would open its mouth and even talk to the audience since all of its responses were prerecorded and played back from 33 1/3 rpm records.  Moreover, the responses were not basic.  Elektro actually had a comprehensive vocabulary of approximately 700 words and would engage the audience every chance it got.

For instance, Elektro would greet its audience by saying, ““Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be very glad to tell my story. I am a smart fellow as I have a very fine brain of 48 electrical relays.”  Elektro would often tease its audience members by stating, “My brain is bigger than yours.”

In order to smoke its cigarettes, an assistant of Elektro would place a cigarette in a hole in the robot’s upper lip and light it.  Elektro would then take a few puffs, exhaling the smoke in short puffs before that assistant would then extinguished it.  After each exhibit performance, team members who operated Elektro would have to vehmently scrub the tar out of Elektro’s tubing; otherwise, the tubing would be clogged.

Audiences applauded with amazement at the wonders of Elektro.  They stood in awe at how close to reality mankind could actually be replaced with a robot version of themselves.

Years after the World’s Fair, Elektro would continue to appear to the public, both in person and both on television and in the movies, performing tricks, as well as wowing audiences at local county fairs and store grand openings and department stores.  Elektro made its last movie appearance in a B-Movie in 1960.

Eventually, Elektro was returned back to Westinghouse, where its  head ended up in the basement of an engineer who had initially worked on it.  It sat there for years.

Time passed from the 1960s on through to the 1990s.

The public soon forgot about the famous Elektro and it would appear that this smoking robot would disappear into history.

Eventually, however, Jack Weeks, the son of the very same engineer who had worked on Elektro, stumbled upon Elektro’s head in the basement. and would later find the some of its body in a barn.  Not wanting to see his father’s invention go into oblivion, Jack Weeks spent the next few years trying to piecing Elektro back together.  Eventually, after trial and error, Jack Weeks proved successful, whereupon he eventually donated Elektro to the Mansfield Memorial Museum in Mansfield, Ohio, the birthplace of Elektro, where it stands today for everybody to still enjoy and be amazed, just as the audience had done at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

I mean, how can you not be impressed with a smoking robot?

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