Archive for March, 2011

1891 – Mechanical Elephant – Woolson Morse (American)


Not Barnum's, But the Great Mechanical Wonder.

Few theatre-goers have any intelligent conception of the mechanism of some of the "animals" that are in the cast of a modern spectacular drama or comic opera. A long time ago when the heifer was part and parcel of "Evangeline," it caused an infinite amount of merriment, but few ever stopped to think how it was done. although its construction was simple enough, the effect was wonderfully amusing.


A representative of this paper met with Manager John W. McKinney at the Wieting opera house, and through his courtesy was enabled to critically examine the working model of the monster mechanical elephant in "Wang." DeWolf Hopper's delightful comic opera, which will be presented for the first time in this city  [RH Syracuse, New York] on next Thursday evening at the Wieting opera house.

"The elephant," said Mr. McKinney in explanation, "is a much more complicated creature than any other mechanical property ever used upon the stage, and while it amuses the play-goer, its mechanism is one of study, and the men who do the elephant act are not enjoying themselves as much as the people who are in front. With those men playing elephant is hard work, especially as the elephant is constructed on scientific principles, and in order to make it work properly several consultations were held with the editor of The Scientific American, as well as with several prominant bridge engineers and architects.
"The body of the Hopper elephant is built upon the cantilever principle and by the law of mechanics its weight, as well as the weight of its' rider, is thrown downward and squarely distributed to the weight points of union as indicated in the above picture.


A. Wheels for the eyes.
B. Wheels for the trunk.
C. Cord for drawing trunk inward.
D. Cord for drawing trunk outward.
E. Leather thongs for operating wheels.
F. Hook from which head is suspended.

The two men 'who make the elephant" fore legs and hind legs, have something else to do besides stamping about on stage. They are joined together by a yoke which fastens the neck, shoulders and arms of each man, and this yoke serves as a communication between the two men. When the front legs want to make a movement this yoke prompts the hind legs as to their action. If the front legs want to advance that movement naturally draws the hind legs. By the mechanical construction of the "beast" the rider is enabled to shift his position on the back of the elephant at will. If this law were violated or not adhered to, the elephant's equilibrium would be upset.


The legs of the elephant are made of gutta percha and are worn precisely as trouserts, and are held in position by heavy suspenders. The soles of the feet are made of heavy India rubber. The head rests upon a socket, which gives it an elephantine undulation. And in this head is a clockwork system of pulleys and wheels used by the man who plays the front legs. By this system he manipulates the trunk, tusks, eyes and ears. When the tender wants to curl the trunk inwards he inclines his head forward, grasps a tag at the end of a thong which is fastened to the trunk and by a movement of his head sets in motion a large wheel which turns so as to draw the thong tight, thus giving the desired result.
Woolson Morse, the young man who composed the music of "Wang," is the inventor of this wonderful piece of stage mechanism, the excellence and fine adjustment of which is so apparent to the spectator who by the above description of the interior can tell "just how the wheels go round" when he witnesses "Wang."

(Source: Syracuse New York Evening Herald – 19 Jan, 1893.)

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1954 – “Robo” the Mechanical Elephant owned by C.C. Ezell (American)

Gas-powered Elephant to give Children Rides

San Antonio Light 4 Nov 1954

Robo, the monstrous robot elephant owned by the Ezell drive-in theaters is scheduled for a 1-week stay at the Fredericksburg rd. drive-in beginning Friday. The realistic elephant will also be exhibited at Handy-Andy shopping centers during the day and will give the kiddies rides before showtime each night at the drive-in theater.

Robo is 9 feet high and 12 1/2 feet long, weighs 2500 pounds, and is powered by a 4-cylinder 10-horsepower gasoline motor. He was imported from England.

Robo can do almost anything a little elephant can do. His head and trunk move from side to side with the swing of his body as he walks along. About the only difference between Robo and a live elephant is that he burns gasoline instead of eating hay.

Handy-Andy stores No. 7 at 2716 Fredericksburg. No. 11 at Hildebrand and San Pedro, No. 5 at Woodlawn and Fredericksburg and No. 2 at Cincinnati and Bandera will exhibit the mechanical marvel during the week and also will offer free rides to the children.

"Robo", the mechanical elephant was most likely purchased or leased from Wendelken, despite claims it was imported directly from England by Ezell's.

Caption: Film Industry Women Form National Ass'n. A real Texan welcome was given visiting WOMPI's as they arrived in Dallas for the first National Convention. The photo shows the mechanical elephant which the Ezell circuit sent to the train station Saturday morning (18) with models from Interstate's State Fair exhibit.

(Source: Box Office 25 August 1954)

In September 1954, supposedly a new Frank Stuart elephant is shipped to Winkler Drive-in, Houston (US) from Essex, England. (Source: Billboard 4 Sept 1954)

Claude Ezell was the daddy of the Texas drive-in. He was an old carny. He had drive-ins in Fort Worth, Dallas, Waco, Corpus Christi and Houston. Also referred to as CC Ezell, and Claude Ezell & Associates.

(Source: Nevada State Journal 6 Aug 1954)

(Source: Billboard 27 November 1954)

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1939 – Mechanical Elephants by Messmore & Damon (American)

Messmore & Damon Mechanical Elephant.

(Sourced from the Messmore & Damon catalogue.)

This mechanical elephant does everything but walk!

Although Messmore & Damon had been around for some time, the interest here is around the animated elephants. There were early mammoths made for The World a Million Years Ago for the Chicago Fair, but the animated one of interest here was produced for the 1939 New York World's Fair. There are claims that up to 40 were built. The lelephant could lift and drop its trunk, raise and lower its head, flap its ears and move its tail. Alas it could not walk.

(Source: Billboard 8 April, 1950)

For sale, only $1,600 in 1954! (Source: Billboard 30 Jan, 1954)

They were even found for sale in England!

(Source: Miami News 26 Jan 1956)

Maybe those original tusks were too pointy and dangerous; several examples have them shortened. 

The late Joe McDonnal who established "The Ruins" Restaurant in Seattle.

A photo out of Flickr showing the elephant.

…trunk down….

…trunk up….

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1979 – “Jumbo” the Mechanical Elephant – Restoration by Larry Gavette

In 1979 an American named Larry Gavette, who lives in Waterford, M.I., U.S.A., took his daughter to Bald Mountain Riding Stables for a pony ride. There he found a some-what dilapidated life-sized mechanical elephant and he bought it,  trailer and all, for 125 dollars. It was in poor condition and at first he wondered whether or not to scrap it, but then he decided to find out as much as he could about it; before long he was hooked.

He discovered that previously a firm (Cunningham's Drug Stores) had used the elephant to advertise Jumbo photo-prints and also Jumbo Milk Shakes; they had sold it in 1953 and then bought it back again in 1961 when they donated it to an organisation known as Channel 56 Auction which was an outlet for some charity fund raising. Jumbo was won by the riding stables where Larry eventually discovered it, a victim of weather, its hide fabric and papier-mache tusks damaged by vandals, its head separated from its body.

Larry spent the next winter repairing and rebuilding the elephant body and working on the engine and mechanical gadgetry; after many hours of labour the restoration was complete and the animal mobile again. Once the technical problem had been solved Jumbo was able to amble along at 8 m.p.h. The previous owner had claimed that it had been driven at 16 m.p.h. but that it had been the "scariest ride of his life!" Jumbo was then turned into a company, Pachyderm Limited to engage visiting carnivals and similar spectaculars giving rides to children as he did when first built in Thaxted, U.K. in the early 1950s.

Even after Larry had got Jumbo on the road he had not exhausted his obsession. He still wanted to know how such a creature came to be made, who made it and where had it come from.

Thirty years on, although Larry has since passed Jumbo on to a new family to care for him, we can enjoy Larry's obsession and thorough research that even led him across England at one time, through the content on this website on Frank Stuart's Mechanical Elephants. We all thank you Larry.

Hi Honey, guess what I bought today?….OK.OK..I'll leave it outside then…

A delapidated Jumbo sitting on Larry Gavette's lawn.

Too big to bring indoors, so a winter shelter is built around it…

Stripped down to the frame…

In the enclosed Patio, the head and rump with their new papier-mache underpinnings was what that room looked like most of the winter.

First walkies – sans hide…

The inner-padding going on the hind quarters.

Anne Weber (Edmunds), the soon to be driver (mahout), stitching Jumbo's nether regions…

…that's the second largest pair of long john's I've ever seen…

…the white muslin on the legs and trunk matched the original in purpose, being to hold the shapes as there were "belt loops" sewn completley around the fabric with banding material slipped in the entire circumference to maintain the shape. The leg muslins were removed when the second skin replaced an earlier damaged one, it was too much trouble to get at the feet for inspections and maintenance trying to hold the materials of the inner and outer leg coverings up.. Eventually zippers were added to the inner leg skin so the whole skin could be pulled right out of the way…

Larry's wife Sue stitching the stomach flap…

Larry's wife Sue with daughter Adrianne painting the new "howdah" (passenger seat)…Well, someone's got to take the photos!

The new hide (referred to as "masking") being fitted. The original hide was used as the pattern for the new one.

…not long now…

Nearly there…just a bit of tooth whitening to attract the girls….particularly on your first date!

All dressed up..check. Hide brushed..check.Teeth white..check. Big "J" medallion..check. Ramps ready..check. Sue's approval..check. What are we waiting for then? Let's go…

Anne Weber (Edmunds) putting Jumbo through his paces in two parades during his second career in Michigan. Anne did all the driving in almost all the parades and events Jumbo participated in, traveling all over Michigan and parts of Canada. The trailer is a reproduction of the trailer used in the movie Smokey and the Bandit 2.

Jumbo in a parade with 'mahout' Anne Weber.

Local news reporter Erik Smith comes out and does a news piece on Jumbo. Larry Gavette, his daughter Adrianne, and Erik go for a ride down the street.

Jumbo, proud of its new trailer.


The inspiration for the new trailer – Smoky and the Bandit 2.

A look at the building of a new trailer for Jumbo, the mechanical elephant. This was done in 1979.

Larry Gavette (2011) standing beside a full-size tracing of the original Frank Stuart Mechanical Elephant "Potsy". The tracing was made by the late Maurice Radburn.

All images and videos courtesy of Larry Gavette.

1936 – “Robie” the Radio-Controlled Robot – Arthur Wilson (American)

Caption: Here is "Robie," the amazing radio controlled mechanical man that can do practically everything but think. He is the brain child of Arthur Wilson of Chicago, Illinois.

Modern Mechanix December 1936

Mechanical Wonder Man Is Operated By Radio Control

"Robie," a mechanical robot walks, talks, smokes and winks his eyes when electrical impulses are transmitted to his "radio" brain. The unusual animated character is the work of Arthur Wilson, of Chicago, Illinois. More than a year's work and the assistance of three men were required to perfect the robot which is constructed of sheet metal and wood.
The interior of the mechanical man is a maze of electrical apparatus which is used in providing speech and motion. A special receiver picks up the shortwave impulses sent out by his remote controlled mind, station W9X10, to provide animation.

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