Ever since I went to Disney World for the first time, I’ve been intrigued by futuristic animatronic spectacle. There’s something about the innocence in the first half the 20th century, especially when it came to postulating the future, that is really endearing to me. Of course I didn’t live through it, but going back to look ahead is a strange and wonderful exercise.
General Motors’ Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair is the best example I can come up with. The General Motors Pavilion was a beautiful art deco experience and it’s main attraction was Futurama. The exhibit envisioned a world of tomorrow (the ’60s) with interconnected superhighways and futuristic urban landscapes. Visitors were strapped to a conveyor belt and shuttled around fully functioning miniatures in a model of the United States. Exposed to a wonderous and achievable world of the future. A lot of it was ultimately realized, but a lot still remains science fiction.
And of course, the 1939 World’s Fair had robots. Elektro was a gold-plated terror standing nearly 7 feet tall designed by Westinghouse Electric. Sure it was a bunch of parlor tricks and by all accounts benevolent, but Elektro must have blown minds back then. They didn’t know any better in 1939. I suspect many a child left that World’s Fair with nightmares after meeting Elektro. This thing could recognize voice commands, blow up balloons, and of course smoke cigarettes. Watch the video below. After counting on it’s fingers, Elektro is rewarded with the following command; You. May. Now. Smoke. This. Cigarette. Go. On. To which the presenter lights his cigarette and says to the crowd, “And folks he’s only two years old too. Just learning.”
I don’t know what Elektro did to piss off his makers, but eventually, his head was given to a retiring Westinghouse engineer and the rest of is aluminum body was sold for scrap.
I bet you didn’t know that there’s a World’s Fair going on right now in Shanghai. When’s New York going to have another?