The Robots of Westinghouse

The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.
Erich Fromm

1. Herbert Televox
Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co’s first robot was Herbert Televox, built in 1927 by Roy Wensley at their East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania plant. The robot was based on the patents of Wensley, filed in 1923, 1927and 1929. The Televox could accept a telephone call by lifting the telephone receiver. It could then control a few simple processes by operating some switches, depending on the signals that were received. Televox could utter a few primordial buzzes and grunts and could wave his arms a bit. Although speechless when first created, Televox later learned to say two simple sentences. What follows is a description of the Televox from the January 1928, issue of Popular Science Monthly journal.

Roy Wensley (1888-1963) with his Televox
Roy James Wensley (1888-1963) with his Televox robot

…Look first at that mechanical creature answering the telephone. He is the invention of R. J. Wensley, an engineer of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, and goes by the name of Televox. If you could dissect him you would find his inner workings much like those of your radio receiver, and little more complicated. Yet if you should establish him at home in your absence—which the inventor says is not at all impracticable—he would serve you as a trustworthy and obedient caretaker.
The mechanism consists primarily of a series of electrical relays, each sensitive to a sound of a certain pitch, and capable of translating that sound into specified mechanical action, such as opening and cloning the switches of electrical appliances. Each relay is actuated through a tuned electrical circuit responsive to vibration of a given frequency and no other, somewhat as the circuits of your radio can be tuned to a broadcasting station of a given wave length.
The mechanical man is not connected electrically to the telephone, but listens much as you would. His ear is a sensitive microphone placed close to the receiver. His voice is a loudspeaker close to the transmitter. And the language he speaks is a series of mechanically operated signal buzzes.
Experimentally, he has been made to understand and respond to words uttered by human voices, but for practical operation the language which spurs him to action has been simplified to three different sounds of different pitches. These sounds are made either by three tuned pitch pipes or, as in the New York demonstration, by three electrically operated tuning forks.
For illustration, imagine you are at the house of a friend and are calling your home equipped with a Televox. In the ordinary way, you telephone your home. Why, your phone rings. Televox lifts the receiver and utters a combination of buzzes which tell you that you have the right number.
Now you sound a single high note from the first pipe, which means, “Hello, get set for action.” Televox stops buzzing and responds with a series of clicks, saying “All set: what do you want?”.
Next you sound two short notes from the same pipe. These tell Televox to connect you with the switch on the electric oven. The reply is two short buzzes saying, “You are now connected,” followed by a long buzz-z-z-z, which informs you that “the switch is open.”
At this, you sound a deeper note on the second pitch pipe, meaning “Close the switch and start the oven.” Immediately Televox ceases the long buzz, closes the switch, then replies with a short, snappy buzz informing you that the switch has been closed and the oven is going.
Next you may wish to inquire about the furnace, and with the first pitch pipe you sound three shrill notes. This means “Connect me with the furnace and tell me how hot it is.” The reply is three short buzzes, telling you that the connection has been made, followed by a pause, then two more buzzes which say, “The furnace is pretty low.”
So you blow four blasts from the same pitch pipe, meaning “Connect me with the switch operating the drafts.” Televox replies with four buzzes, signifying that the connection has been made; then one short buzz informing you that the drafts are closed. With one blast from the second pitch pipe you order the drafts opened. Televox instantly opens them, then gives the long buzz to say that the job is done.
If nothing further requires attention, you blow the third pitch pipe, the lowest in tone of the three, which says “Good bye.” Televox hangs up the receiver, and stands ready for the next call.
Each of these astonishing actions, as already explained, is accomplished by a different sound-sensitive relay. When the bell rings, the noise causes the first relay to lift the telephone hook and start the signal buzzer. The high note of the first pipe serves to connect any desired one of a number of relays, each of which has been arranged to control a certain operation. Thus, when the note is sounded twice, it moves a switch that connects relay number two, controlling the electric oven. When sounded three times, it connects relay number three, and so on, according to the number of operations for which the apparatus is designed. Each time a relay is connected, Televox gives a corresponding number of buzzes, indicating that the connection has been made. Moreover, it sounds an additional long or short buzz indicating whether the switch to be operated by the relay is open or closed.
The lower note of the second pitch pipe is the operating note; that is, it causes the connected relay to open or close the switch as may be required; also to report the fact by changing its long buzz to a short one, or vice versa. The deep note of the third pitch pipe simply causes Televox to quit work and ring off.
To demonstrate that Televox will respond to spoken words as well as musical notes, the inventor has set up in the Westinghouse laboratories at East Pittsburgh, Pa., a mechanism which will open a door to the call of “Open sesame!”. The sounds of the voice, however, are too highly complicated for use in general practice. Still, a person with a good ear for music can get response from Televox by whistling or singing in the exact notes to which the relays of the machine are tuned.
Three of the machines already are in actual use in Washington, D. C., replacing watchmen at reservoirs. By their buzzes, they tell the distant caller the height of water as shown by the gage in the reservoir, and also control the flow of water at his bidding…

The Herbert Televox robot became a national sensation and was followed by a parade of increasingly advanced machines.

The Telelux robot of Westinghouse
The Telelux robot of Westinghouse

2. Mr. Telelux
After Televox, Westinghouse created Mr. Telelux, a robot operated by light instead of by sound. The brain of the robot consists of two photo-electric cells, able to translate variations into corresponding electric impulses. Let’s see the description of the Telelux from The San Antonio Light magazine from September 1931.

…a robot who ignores everything but light rays. As she walked toward him she stepped in the path of several beams of light casting a shadow on each of his several photo-electric cells, which caused electric motors to make him get up and sit down, and turned phonograph records prompting him to make his remarks. He would just as soon have rung a burglar alarm or fired a pistol at her, had his creators designed him that way.
Mr. Telelux was trained in other ways also. Using a large, specially built flashlight to convey his orders, the scientist ordered Telelux to turn on a fan, to extinguish the light, to turn on and off a Vacuum cleaner, and to perform other tasks. A row of buttons on the flashlight grip, each button turning on a light of different frequently did the trick. Each light was picked up by the photo-electric cell, which represents the robot’s contact with the world, translated it into a definite order, and shot an electric current to the clay, which actuated the appropriate mechanism. Telelux can turn on the vacuum cleaner, but he cannot be trusted to take over the housewife’s job of sweeping and dusting—not yet. However, he can stand at a turnstile and count-passengers or customers with 100 per cent accuracy and honesty. This forces the ticket seller to be 100 per cent honest also, because Telelux can’t be bribed. For 24 hours a day he will stand over a factory conveyor belt, count every package that passes and reject all that are faulty in size or labeling.
When ships fill their bunkers with coal, it comes sliding along in irregular amounts over a road conveyor belt. Except by measuring the size of the coal bunkers filled there would be no way of estimating how much the steamer had received, but a robot sensitive to weight records electro-magnetically just how much the conveyor is depressed by the height of coal at a certain point reckons it all up in tons. There is no chance for mistakes or short-weight.

3. Elektro the Moto-Man
After the Telelux, Westinghouse built several other robots—Katrina Van Televox, Rastus Robot & Willie Jr., Willie Vocalite, succeeded by the most successful Elektro the Moto-Man, built in 1937/38 at the Westinghouse’s factory in Mansfield.

The Elektro robot inside
The Elektro robot inside

The Elektro, created by the engineer Joseph Barnett, was constructed from aluminium on a steel frame. It was 210 cm tall, weighting 120 kg. He relied on a series of record players, photo voltaic cells, motors and telephone relays to carry out its actions. It was capable to perform 26 routines (movements), and a vocabulary of 700 words. Sentences were formulated by a series of 78 RPM record players connected to relay switches.

Elektro had no remote control, instead responding to voice commands using a telephone handset connected to its chest. The chest cavity even lit up as it recognized each word. Each word set up vibrations which were converted into electrical impulses, which in turn operated the relays controlling eleven motors.

A series of words properly spaced selected the movement Elektro was to make. His fingers, arms, and turntable for talking were operated by nine motors, while another small motor worked the bellows so the giant could smoke. The eleventh motor drove the four rubber rollers under each foot, enabling him to walk.

With a loud electrical whine, Elektro would walk about the stage in a slow slide that betrayed the rollers on his feet. Despite his bulk, he was pretty much a hollow tin, as his operator could turn Elektro with a light push of one hand. Other exciting things that Elektro could do was move his head and arms, count on his fingers, recognize colors (his photoelectric “eyes” could distinguish red and green light), smoke cigarettes, and talk.

Spoken words set up vibrations that are converted into electrical waves by a grid-glow tube. The electric impulse then lifts a shutter in front of an electric lamp and sends a flash of light across the room to a photoelectric tube or electric eye in the control unit, which serves as a brain. The control unit—Elektro’s brain, weighs approximately 25 kg and occupies more than 0,5 cubic meters of space outside its body. The brain (control unit) includes an electric eye, 48 electric relays and signal lights, in addition to the controlling photo-electric cell.

Joseph Barnett with his robots—Elektro and Sparko
Joseph Barnett with his robots—Elektro and Sparko

Talking to Elektro is like dialing an automatic telephone, using light impulses instead of numbers to cause the relays to act. It makes no difference what words are used to give the command so long as the proper number of light impulses are produced. One word or impulse places a series of relays in position to act. Two words close the electrical circuit and release current to the motors employed in any particular movement of the robot. Three words activate relays to stop Elektro, while four words bring all of the relays back to their normal position of rest.

Just as the electric eye converts light waves into electric currents to put life into the robot, two other electric eyes enable it to discern colors. These photoelectric cells are placed directly back of Elektro’s glass eye. A filter in front of one tube lets only the relatively hot rays from red light through to the cell. A filter in front of the other tube permits only the relatively cool heat waves of green light to reach the tube. When the proper lights are flashed in Elektro’s eyes, one or the other of these electric eyes energizes a relay to start a record revolving on a turntable to produce the word —”red” or “green.”

Electro’s walking is accomplished by means of four rubber rollers under each foot, which are driven by chains and shafts connected to a motor in the middle of the automaton. Nine motors are required to operate the fingers, arms, head and turntables for talking. Another small motor works the bellows for Elektro’s smoking.

Like some radio programs, Elektro does his talking by means of transcriptions. His speech usually lasts about 1 minute and uses only 75 words. He has 8 turntables, each of which could be used to give 10-minute talks. Actually, except for an opening talk of about a minute, his other speeches will be only a few seconds long. A solenoid (a tubular coil) activated by electrical impulses in proportion to the harshness or softness of spoken words makes Elektro’s aluminum lips move in rhythm to his speech-making.

Elektro was on exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and reappeared at that fair in 1940, with a new robot, Sparko, a dog that could bark, sit, and beg.