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, 1927 and 1929. The first man weighed 600 pounds, but the one above only weighs 40 pounds. 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.
From the January, 1928, issue of Popular Science Monthly journal:
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. It 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 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.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.