A humanoid robot named Elektro was the star of the Westinghouse pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Compared to the whiz-bang technology being developed by today's engineers, Elektro is quite primitive. But, he’s a bona fide robotic pioneer.

I recently visited the National Robotic Engineering Center (NREC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. The 110,000-square-foot facility is engaged in a wide variety of mobile robotic applications for military and commercial customers, including the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps, NASA, Caterpillar and Deere.

The NREC made headlines a few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama visited and launched the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership. Among other things, it calls for $70 million in federal funds to support research into robots that “will work closely with human operators, allowing new ability for factory workers . . .to carry out key, hard-to-do tasks.”

While I was walking past an impressive array of state-of-the-art robotic technology, I couldn’t help but think about Elektro. Never heard of him?

“Elektro the Moto-Man” was the star of the Westinghouse Electric Corp. pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Today, he’s in permanent retirement at the Mansfield Memorial Museum in Mansfield, OH. A replica is on display at the Heinz History Center in downtown Pittsburgh.

Compared to the whiz-bang technology currently being developed by NREC engineers, Elektro is quite primitive. But, he’s a bona-fide robotic pioneer. The 7-foot tall, 160-pound humanoid was developed in the mid-1930s by engineers at the Westinghouse Appliance Div. plant in Mansfield, OH (the facility closed in 1990).

Elektro was made from an assortment of electromechanical parts and components used in Westinghouse appliances. For instance, cords used to assemble coffee makers and irons were used for wiring. Wheels used on the bottom of Elektro’s feet were borrowed from vacuum cleaners.

The robot’s body, arms and legs were fabricated from aluminum. Inside, a wide variety of electric motors, gears, cams, cables, chains, sprockets, vacuum tubes, speakers and photo electric cells allowed the humanoid to operate.

Elektro walked after receiving voice commands. He also could count using his fingers, sing a song and smoke cigarettes. In addition, Elektro had a dog named Sparko, who was patterned after a Scotty.

After the New York World’s Fair closed, Elektro and Sparko toured the United States for many years, stopping at appliance retailers and department stores to tout various Westinghouse products. But, Elektro was disassembled in 1960, packed away into crates and forgotten about until 2004.

Meanwhile, Westinghouse donated $5 million to CMU in 1979 to create the Robotics Institute, which today oversees activities at the NREC. Westinghouse invested in robotics research again in the 1970s, but after acquiring industry pioneer Unimation in 1983, it dropped out of the industry in the late 1980s.