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4:10 pm
Mon April 2, 2012

America's First Celebrity Robot Is Staging A Comeback

Originally published on Mon April 2, 2012 6:32 pm

Before IBM's Watson and Deep Blue, there was another celebrity robot: Elektro.

The first robot introduced to Americans, Elektro was the 7-foot-tall man who greeted millions of visitors who streamed through the gates of the 1939 World's Fair. He even appeared on film, in The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair.

The robot was built as a showpiece for the manufacturer Westinghouse, which made clothing irons and ovens in Mansfield, Ohio, at the time.

But when Westinghouse cleared its warehouses for World War II production, Elektro ended up in the basement of an engineer who had worked on the robot's wiring.

And that's where the engineer's son, Jack Weeks, found him, as a boy.

"I opened one box, and there was the head of a robot there. So we started prying with my dad as to what was in the other boxes," Weeks says. "He showed us ... and we managed to put the head on the torso and played with it as children," wheeling it around in games of cowboys and cops and robbers.

Elektro went back on the road for Westinghouse after the war, visiting county fairs and opening department stores. Weeks went along as an assistant.

Elektro could tell jokes, smoke cigarettes and blow up balloons.

"The little kids, it would drive them nuts," Weeks says. "They'd try a balloon blowing-up contest ... and Elektro always won. He had the biggest compressor."

When Elektro went on tour, no one had seen anything like him. Some people were even afraid of the robot. But gradually, Elektro and his prewar technology became less impressive. He was sent to a California amusement park some time in the 1950s, and Weeks lost track of him for decades.

That is, until his brother bought a house back in Mansfield — and found Elektro's head in the basement. The robot's body then turned up in a barn.

Weeks pieced Elektro back together and placed him on display in the nearby Mansfield Museum.

"He's still a good-looking robot," Weeks says.

The museum is sending a replica of Elektro on a national tour this spring.

The old Elektro will stay behind in Ohio, though Weeks hopes that someday America's first celebrity robot will find a grander, permanent home of his own.

"He's just been around for so long in my life," Weeks says. "I intend to see that he's well taken care of in the future."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And now the story about the return of America's first celebrity robot. Before there was Watson, before there was Deep Blue, before there was R2D2, or Rosie or Wall-E, there was Elektro at the 1939 World's Fair.

WHYY's Emma Jacobs tells us how Elektro was lost, found and then returned to the public.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Elektro made a name for himself before the Second World War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And here he comes, ladies and gentlemen, walking up to greet you under his own power.

JACOBS: He even appeared on film in "The Middleton Family" at the New York World's Fair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MIDDLETON FAMILY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right, Elektro.

ELEKTRO: Will you tell your story. Please? Who me?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes, you.

ELEKTRO: OK, toots. Ladies and gentlemen, I'll be very glad to tell you my story.

JACOBS: Elektro went on to brag about his brain of electrical relays. He was built as a showpiece for Westinghouse, which made clothing irons and ovens back in Mansfield, Ohio. But when Westinghouse cleared its warehouses for war production, he ended up in the basement of a young engineer. And that's where the engineer's son, Jack Weeks, found him.

JACK WEEKS: I opened one box and there was the head of a robot there. And I looked at it, and so we started prying with my dad as to what was in the other boxes. And he showed us all the things that were there. And we managed to put the head on the torso and played with it as children.

JACOBS: Jack's father had worked on Elektro's wiring. Jack and his brothers wheeled the head and torso around in games of cops and robbers and cowboys. After the war, Elektro went back on the road for Westinghouse visiting county fairs and opening department stores. Jack went along as an assistant.

Elektro could tell jokes, smoke a cigarette, and blow up balloons.

WEEKS: And the little kids, it would drive them nuts. They'd try a balloon blowing up contest - kids was up there blowing up balloons - and Elektro always won. He had the biggest compressor.

JACOBS: No one had seen anything like him. Some people were even afraid. But Elektro and his old technology gradually became less impressive. Sometime in the '50s, he was sent to a California amusement park and Jack lost track of him for decades. Until his brother bought a house back in Mansfield, Ohio and found Elektro's head in the basement. Then the body turned up in a barn and Jack stitched Elektro back together, and placed him on display at easy visiting distance, in the Mansfield Museum.

WEEKS: He's still a good looking robot. Hi, Robot. How are you? Haven't seen you for a while.

JACOBS: The museum's sending a replica on a tour of the country this spring. The old Elektro will stay behind, though someday Jack hopes he'll find a grander, permanent home of his own.

WEEKS: He's just been around for so long in my life. After having lost him for so long and he comes back and being able to own him, I intend to see that he's well taken care of in the future.

JACOBS: Jack is 77. Elektro is 75. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.