New Scientist has a completely charming article on ‘Elektro‘ – the world’s first celebrity robot who wowed the crowds at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with his mechanics that produced a remarkable interactive experience for the time.
The article is by Noel Sharkey, an AI and robotics researcher, who recounts the robot’s amazing story as he moved from mechanical marvel, to forgotten relic, to museum centrepiece.
One curious part of the story is that Elektro tried the classic B-list celebrity tactic of using sex to revive a flagging career – appearing in a proto soft porn film in the 1960s.
The movie was entitled Sex Kittens Go to College, and you can see Elektro featured in the trailer. The movie is remarkable largely for the fact that it is so soft as to be completely safe for work – presumably relying on the strategy rediscovered by millions of bloggers that simply mentioning sex in the title gets attention regardless of the content (see above).
However, there’s also some great colour newsreel footage of Elektro in action at the World’s Fair and you can see how impressive he was.
The NewSci article describes some of the technology that drove Elektro. The mechanics of the ‘voice recognition’ system are a particularly inventive hack.
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.”