In a security check line in the Denver airport, my wife, my children and I encountered a man who, for reasons unclear to us, really wanted to speak to us. Given that we were a day into a trip that featured both our children vomiting over and over again on day 1 and we were now stuck in the longest TSA line in recorded history and trying desperately not to think about the fact that we might miss our second attempt to escape this airport via plane because of how long the line was, we welcomed the distraction.
In the course of this conversation with us, he shared many things. I now share with you one tale, certainly at least partially true, that he told us. A tale of a robot who was taught to deliver the mail and use the bathroom. A robot that looked like our most revered President.
Most people—at least most people in the United States—are aware of Disney exhibit The Hall of Presidents. What might strike some as odd is that Abraham Lincoln, while represented, has a relatively small role in it. Given the importance of Lincoln to US history and the general respect with which he is viewed, one would anticipate him having as large a speaking role as, say, Roosevelt or JFK.
The reason, however, is Lincoln has had his own showcase for years, Great Moments with Lincoln. In fact, Lincoln’s exhibit preceded—and likely inspired—the Hall by six years. Opening in 1965, Great Moments has existed in one capacity or another through today minus being shuttered for a brief period of years in the early 2000s. Visitors to Disney would have to wait until 1971 to meet the rest of our Presidents.
The tale of the talking animatronic Lincoln, however, begins even earlier, at the 1964 World’s Fair. There a smaller scale of Great Moments was first debuted, running for over a year. In fact, for a few months, the United States had not one, but two robotic Lincolns presenting Great Moments to audiences—one at Disney and one at the World’s Fair site.
When the World’s Fair shuttered, the Northeastern animatronic rail splitter went to a Disney Engineering facility in New York State. Shortly after “his” arrival, the team there decided that more could be done with him. See, the Great Moments animatron only stood and sat. He did not move left or right at the waist and certainly never walked. But the engineers thought they could change all that.
It proved an unexpectedly difficult task, the joint work presenting a far bigger challenge than any of them anticipated. That was until one group, the team working on the wrist joints came up with a bright idea.
Requesting money from petty cash, they located and rented a real life human skeleton. Using the human skeletal system as base, they broke through and copied the wrist’s complex series of interlocking bones in metal.
News of their success spread quickly and soon Honest Abe found himself with human-like working hip, knee, ankle joints, amongst others. From there, it did not take long to get their Presidential robot walking.
By that time, however, the idea of a walking President had fallen out of favor. The simple Great Moments version of the Great Emancipator had been judged as good enough and no one wanted to upgrade him any longer. However, this upstate New York now had given life to this shambling copy of a former living being based, in large part, on the bleached bones of another long dead man. It seemed a shame to waste him.
So they decided on a new use for arguable the greatest leader in American history. Mailman.
Essentially installing a supermarket scanner where Abe’s brain would have sat, the team outfitted every office with a bar code. The Liberator would wander pick up the mail at a designated time and walk the halls of the engineering facility, “reading” each barcode and delivering the mail that matched said bar code accordingly. Please take a moment to imagine looking up from your computer to see a robotic version of Abraham Lincoln’s serious visage as he extends an impossibly strong metal hand to you, a pile of letter in “his” grip.
It worked. Sort of.
Lincoln, being an unholy being of metal and science not flesh and blood, needed a fuel source to run. Disney, even then, being a progressive and thoughtful organization determined that hydrogen would be the best choice. Abundant, environmentally friendly, and having no stinky discharge like gas or coal might (especially important given that this robot President did all his work indoors), it seemed the obvious fit.
Hydrogen does still have a waste byproduct when used as fuel: water. So Uncle Abe would literally take on water as he went through his daily task. The engineers needed to figure out how to “teach” the animatronic savior of the Union how to discharge the waste. And where better to relieve oneself of water than, you guessed it, the bathroom.
Affixing another bar code on the men’s room and then one over a urinal, the engineers, essentially potty trained our 16th President’s robotic doppleganger. But it wasn’t perfect. The tube used to empty animatron’s bladder was too, well, limp. Programming him to “aim” was too difficult a feat, even with those horrifying skeleton joints. They needed to stiffen the tube. They needed to wrap it with something. And thus, animatronic Abe became anatomically correct.
From the World’s Fair to delivering the mail and whipping out his robot penis daily. A truly inspiring story for the robotic representation of The Tycoon from Illinois.