Elektro, Robot of Mansfield
Elektro the Robot was the humanoid star of the "World of Tomorrow"-themed 1939 New York World's Fair. Seven feet tall, made of metal, filled with then-state-of-the-art electrical gizmos, he could walk, smoke a cigarette, count on his fingers, and hurl wisecracks at amazed audiences. He had a big, see-through speaker in his chest, so people could see that there wasn't a man hidden inside.
So how did the robot-of-tomorrow in New York end up in the world-of-today in Mansfield, Ohio?
Enter Scott Schout. "I was not a robot person," said Scott, a paleontologist who'd moved to Mansfield in the 1990s because of its affordable housing. By accident, Scott discovered the abandoned Mansfield Memorial Museum, shuttered for 44 years. He cleaned it up, reopened it, and only then learned of Elektro, whose head sat on the coffee table of the son of the engineer who'd built him -- in Mansfield, Ohio. Local sleuthing by Scott turned up the rest of the robot, still in his packing crates. He'd made his last public appearance in 1960, in the Hollywood B-movie Sex Kittens Go To College.
Scott oversaw Elektro's reassembly, and the robot was unveiled with much fanfare at the museum in 2005. On hand was the last living person who'd operated Elektro at the World's Fair, 92 years old. She touched the robot's metal hand, then fell back in a swoon. "I thought, 'Oh my god, I killed her,'" said Scott, but she'd only been overcome by memories.
Elektro can evidently still knock people for a loop, but the Mansfield Memorial Museum has other exhibits of merit, too. "It's as eclectic as it was originally," said Scott, proud of what he saved and what he's added.
For example, there's a glass case of zoomorphic animals: dead animals dressed in Victorian outfits and posed as if at tea parties and weddings. Scott was particularly impressed by the frogs. "There's nothing inside them," he said. "It's like they blew them up with air and then did the taxidermy."
He then gave us advice that we wish we'd heard years earlier: never open a case displaying a 19th century taxidermied animal. "Off-gassing," said Scott. "Arsenic and strychnine. I walked into one of these cases and passed out."
Exhibits are routinely swapped in and out by Scott to keep the museum fresh. We saw a planter made from an elephant's foot; the noose that killed the only man legally hanged in Richland County; two tree trunks from an orchard planted by Johnny Appleseed; the oldest bicycle in Ohio; and the dusty boots worn by Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise on his moon training field exercises. Scott said he has far more in storage than he has room to display.
Elektro, however, is the museum's prize, and the formerly robot-indifferent Scott now fiercely protects the metal man. "He doesn't leave my sight," said Scott, who has no patience for those who want to take Elektro away to some bigger, fancier museum; or who don't recognize Elektro's historical importance; or who regard the robot as an exploitable joke. "I don't want him to end up in another Sex Kittens Go To College."
Elektro still works, but Scott treats the old robot gently and doesn't turn him on ("I don't want to break him," he said). Instead, Scott has built an exact replica of Elektro as he appeared in 1939 and plans to have him operational at the museum in 2013 -- along with a replica of Elektro's robot dog pal, Sparko. Until then, visitors can study the real Elektro in stasis while watching vintage video of him running through his tricks.
Scott will be there too, no matter when you might visit. He's arranged to be cremated when he dies and interred in a wall niche hidden behind one of the museum's big display cases. The intent, he said, is not to be an exhibit, or even remembered, but just to stick around. "I'll watch," said Scott. "If someone does something stupid, I'll come out like Poltergeist."