History Stories


A Smoking Robot Ruled the 1939 World’s Fair

With The World of Tomorrow as it's theme, the 1939 World's Fair opened in Queens, New York in April, and was visited by 40 million people before closing its doors in 1940.

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

Nearly 80 years ago this month, President Roosevelt took the dais in front of the Court of Peace in the center of the 1,216-acre fairgrounds in Queens, New York, and officially opened the 1939 World’s Fair. Despite the blessings of the president, the event got off to a rocky start. The weather was uncooperative, construction on parts of the park hadn’t yet been finished and the predicted opening day crowd of one million spectators turned out to be more like 250,000.

These early bumps were soon overcome, and the 1939 World’s Fair would go on to be a resounding success. Despite having to contend with the lingering hardships of the end of the Great Depression and the dawn of World War II, New York showed the world—and the 40 million visitors who would eventually wander the grounds—a vision of what the future could hold. While previous fairs had celebrated the current achievements of nations, this fair embraced the possibilities of “The World of Tomorrow.”

Meet the World’s Most Famous Moto-Man

Built on the former dump site of an ash company, the New York World’s Fair was a beacon of hope that encouraged both visiting countries and private companies like General Motors and Westinghouse Electric, to show off their latest innovations to an amazed public.

Crowds waited in three-hour-long lines to meet Westinghouse’s Elektro the Moto-Man, one of the first robots (at least as we think of them today), that the world had ever seen. The company was no stranger to dabbling in robotics. Over the preceding decade, it had built two early prototypes for machines that could take simple commands like answering phones and turning on record players. But, in the two years before the fair, they built their most advanced creation yet.

Elektro was massive—seven feet tall, 250 pounds—and he was designed to put on a show. Visitors were treated to a 20-minute-long performance during which Elektro would smoke, carry on a conversation—including hurling mild insults—from his 700-word vocabulary, blow up balloons and more. When the Fair closed its doors in 1940, Elektro continued to enjoy national fame. After spending WWII in the company’s basement (along with anything else not contributing to the war effort), Elektro was dusted off and sent on tour to fairs, movie sets and other spots around the country, where he continued to delight and inspire generations of children. Today, Elektro, the Moto-Man lives at the Mansfield Museum in Ohio.

A Blast from the Past…for the Citizens of 6939

In addition to exploring our Jetsons-style future, Westinghouse also wanted to capture life as it was in 1939 and preserve it for future generations. To that end, the company created a seven-foot-long time capsule that was to be buried on the grounds of the 1939 World’s Fair for 50 centuries.

What will the denizens of 6939 find when they open the 800-pound, bullet shaped container, you might wonder? Those in charge of the time capsule wanted their ancestors to find a record of the time that included selections ranging from the then-cutting edge to the mundane. There is a Kodak camera and microfilm loaded with examples of art, literature and more culture popular in the day. Helpfully, the capsule also contains a microfilm player as well as instructions on how to make one if the one provided is no longer in use. There is a pack of trendy Camel cigarettes, a toy car and tooth powder (yum). And then, of course, there are those inclusions that, only with hindsight, we can label as unfortunate—like a shingle made with asbestos, which we now know is highly carcinogenic.

A Glimpse Into “The World of Tomorrow”

While Westinghouse had two of the more popular exhibitions at the Fair, it wasn’t the only company to leave visitors in awe. At the General Motors pavilion named “Futurama,” attendees could board a small train made up to be a “time machine,” and go on a 15-minute ride through a city of the future (a city from 1960, to be exact). Electric Utilities allowed people to walk through a giant waterfall via a tunnel. And it was at this Fair that the world was introduced to color TV and nylon stockings to name just a couple of the latest innovations of the day.

Despite facing financial difficulties and the fears that came with rising aggressions in Europe, the 1939 World’s Fair was a resounding success, especially for the City of New York. As Westinghouse’s representative to the fair put it to The New York Times:

“The fine qualities of New York and its people have never been sufficiently articulate to the rest of the country. People think we are too big, that we are rich, powerful, cold and snooty. They don’t know how poor and human we are. We need the good-will of the country. While the Fair is on next year, the city should arouse its community spirit and let visitors know what we mean when we say ‘good old New York.’”

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