Monday, November 27, 2006

EPCOT 1939 - Part Seven: Robots of Future Past

What would any vision of the future be without robots? EPCOT Center featured a couple during its first decade, and likewise, a mechanical man was one of the more popular attractions at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

At EPCOT, SMRT-1 entertained guests as part of a number of activity islands at EPCOT Computer Central in Communicore East. Small, round, purple and cute would be the best way to describe the little robot, who interacted with visitors by playing simple guessing games via phone hookups.

Just outside Communicore East, another little robot could be found on occasion. Gyro stood just under 5 feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. Operated by remote control, he would perform twenty minutes shows throughout the day.

While SMRT-1 and Gyro were pretty state-of-the-art for the 1980s, the concept of an interactive robot was nothing new. An example was present and exceptionally popular at Flushing Meadow’s World of Tomorrow back in 1939. Elektro was a robot’s robot, not at all cute and endearing like his EPCOT counterparts, he held to the more traditional image of robots, as perpetuated by the science fiction pulp magazines of the day--big, slow and lumbering.

Elektro was a resident of the Westinghouse pavilion in the Fair’s Production and Distribution Zone. He was manufactured by Westinghouse in a plant in Mansfield, Ohio. He stood seven feet tall and weighed 300 pounds. As part of his twenty minute presentation, he would walk, move his hands and arms, smoke cigarettes and speak by means of a 78 rpm record player. During the Fair’s 1940 season, he was joined by Sparko, a robot dog who could speak, sit and beg.

Elektro made quite impression on fairgoers and entered into the popular culture of the era. Following World War II, Westinghouse used him to promote appliances, and he was a static display at Palisades Park in Oceanside, California for a number of years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He appeared in the 1960 film Sex Kittens Go to College.

Veteran comic book writer Roy Thomas made Elektro a supporting character when he reintroduced the Justice Society of America to DC Comics readers in the early 1980s. Thomas created a spin-off team know as the All Star Squadron that headquartered in the Fair’s Trylon and Perisphere buildings. Their robot butler Gernsback was clearly based on the Elektro robots.

Up next for EPCOT 1939: The Universe of Energy as it was back in 1939. We’ll take a look at the Petroleum Industry Exhibition and their mascot Pete Roleum.