December 3rd, 2007

giant alien robot semi truck

1939: video of Electro!

BoingBoing linked to the internet archive's posting of "The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair," an hour-long Westinghouse commercial cum story of young love. BoingBoing focuses on the human interest story -- an Indiana girl's family comes to New York for the World's Fair and meets the girl's new boyfriend, a leftist art teacher, whose sneering at American free enterprise hints at his deeper defects of character -- but for me the coolest thing is that *you get to see a good chunk of the Westinghouse exhibits at the 1939 World's Fair.* In full Technicolor.

Including Electro.

A word about Electro: he was a mechanical man widely acclaimed to be the marvel of the Fair. He could speak, count on his fingers, walk, and smoke. In popular books that mention Electro, these abilities are taken pretty much at face value, without any mention of the fact that Electro's ability to do them beggars credulity. Remember: 1939, folks. Seventy years ago. Even given Electro's hulking frame, it's hard to imagine that 1939 technology that could fit inside him could actually make him do any of that stuff -- okay, *maybe* smoking. If somebody lit it for him, and only if he didn't take it out of his mouth. But when I was a kid, I had a book on robotics, and it had a section on Electro. And I was blown away. But, of course, 1939. Not like I'd ever get a chance to see Electro.

Until today. Because the Westinghouse feature includes a bit of Electro's routine. And, wow.

*What a carny fake.*

Watch it for yourself. Electro comes up at about 33:56, and you get to see him walk, talk, take orders, all that. It's just *painful* to watch, especially if you had an image based on what you read in a book as a little kid. His speech is clearly some guy offstage with a microphone -- obvious, given the time, but still sad. His jokes are corny, the kind of thing you'd see in a ventriloquist's act. He's pretty clearly operated by offstage technicians; when the barker gives Electro commands using the special microphone, a light blinks to show Electro is "listening," but it's just a gag. He counts on his fingers by moving them back and forth. And my prediction on Electro smoking was dead on. But the worst part is the walking. Electro, as you've probably guessed, doesn't walk. One leg is stiff and straight, and is on a track in the floor. (That's probably where his control equipment goes -- Electro appears on a balcony above the crowd, and there's pretty clearly a good-sized room immediately below him.) The other leg moves, jerkily, as Electro's stiff leg slides along the track. At its best, it looks sort of like he's skateboarding, like the moving leg is kicking him along the track. But you know it's not.

And that's Electro.

I feel like I just watched the Hell's Angels beat the crap out of Santa Claus.