The Blonde’ll Get the Robot Every Time

Sex Kittens Go to College [aka The Beauty and the Robot] (US-1960; dir. Albert Zugsmith) was a piece of fairly harmless comedic sexploitation starring Mamie Van Doren, Tuesday Weld and Bridget’s sister Mijanou, dressed out in classic 1950s pointy bras and tight sweaters. Mamie Van Doren plays a brilliant science professor who is promoted to head of the science faculty by THINKO the campus robot, and gets to share at least one poignant and life-changing moment with him.

It turns out that THINKO was played by a real robot (of sorts) — Elektro, a robot built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation as a publicity “frontman”.

In 1937, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Corporation started construction on a robot designed to mimic many basic human actions. Within one year, Elektro was created — a giant steel and aluminum contraption adept at blowing up balloons, and smoking cigarettes and able to move its head, arms and legs. Some of Elektro’s more impressive feats included the ability to use a camera to distinguish between red and green lights and a motor skeleton to walk on command. Less impressive were the bad jokes broadcast over its speakers via microphone. (Popular Mechanics)

Apparently his smoking was a great attraction for visitors to the Westinghouse Building (see below), though he clearly had a high opinion of himself as he was known to say things like “I-am-Elektro…. my-brain-is-big-ger-than-yours”.

Elektro, who was created by Barney Barnett, remained the face of Westinghouse for many years, making appearances at places like the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where he wowed some 3.7 million visitors. But fame is fickle. Elektro’s fortunes declined over time, and he was finally reduced to accepting a small but pivotal role in Sex Kittens Go to College. Soon after the filming, however, Elektro was bought by a small, privately owned sideshow-type museum and later sold for scrap — though apparently his head survived. In 2009, the son of a Westinghouse engineer built a nonworking replica of Elektra, which is now on display at the Heinz History Center.

The whereabouts of his robot dog companion Sparko (designed by Don Lee Hadley) is, however, unknown.

For the curious, here is a schematic of Elektro’s workings:

And here’s Sparko’s inner workings:

Above: Barney Barnett with Sparko and his own creations, including daughter Mary Lou

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