Celebrity Robot Says Good-Bye to Upper East Side

As musician Lois Kendall shows him red roses and green leaves, Elektro tells her the color of each. Source: NYPL

As musician Lois Kendall shows him red roses and green leaves, Elektro tells her the color of each. Source: NYPL

If you love the future, you have to see Elektro, the celebrity robot, who once held court in the Westinghouse pavilion at the 1939 New York’s World’s Fair, before he leaves the city once again. He’s the star attraction in the Museum of the City of New York’s Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s exhibition, closing soon.

We couldn’t take photos inside the show, so here’s a publicity picture of Elektro back in 1939. He walked, talked, smoked cigarettes, as you’ll witness in this 1939 YouTube clip. This sensational moto-man used vacuum tubes, a 78 RPM record player, photoelectric cells, and telephone relays to wow the crowds.

But Elektro is only the tip of the Trylon of how fair design and engineering shaped modern American style. The show introduces the industrial design engineers that shaped products that grace MoMA’s design collection and insinuated themselves into everyday life – streamlined appliances, nylon stockings, Herman Miller clocks, Greyhound buses, and superhighways. Check out the MCNY’s excellent Tumblr feed for their visions of the future.

Postcard of the General Motors Futurama, NY 1939 World's Fair. Source: MCNY

Postcard of the General Motors Futurama, NY 1939 World’s Fair, that resembles BPC today. Source: MCNY

Among the show’s highlights are clips showing the GM Futurama, where New Yorkers waited in line for hours to see what the city of 1960 would look like. “Sound chairs” moved them along a conveyor belt where they could witness a vast scale model of modernized America, with superhighways soaring over canyons and cutting through mountains, and urban/suburban cloverleaf interchanges to keep traffic moving.

Afterward, people would exit into a full-scale World of Tomorrow where they would see what the urban intersection of the future would be – filled with pedestrian overpasses, department stores, and unimpeded whizzing traffic. It sure looked a lot like the view of Battery Park City along West Street.

Suggested Exhibit for NY 1939 World's Fair. Watercolor & gouache on board. Source: MCNY

Beautiful watercolor/gouache from MCNY collection: “Suggested Exhibit for NY 1939 World’s Fair.”

Oh! Wallace Harrison, one of the architects of the Trylon and Perisphere actually did the master plan for Battery Park City…and Lincoln Center and the UN Headquarters building and Time-Life on Sixth Avenue!

So, no wonder Elektro feels right right at home in 2013 Manhattan. In 1939, he already could see what it would look like, right from his pavilion!

Take a spin around Elektro’s world, courtesy of the New York Public Library:

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