Walt's Robot Friend Garco

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The three Tomorrowland-themed episodes about outer space that aired from 1955-1957 (Man in Space, Tomorrow the Moon and Mars and Beyond) on Disney's weekly television show on ABC are often credited with generating public interest in the United States government space program and its goals to not only put a man in space, but to go to the moon and beyond.

The films also influenced many people who later became aerospace engineers and even top NASA officials, as well as having a significant cultural impact on the American space program by convincing people that it was possible to go into space at that time and not in some vague future.

News articles at the time of the original broadcasts half seriously suggested that the United States should turn over the space program to Disney, since Disney had a plan and a vision.

In March 1961, when Walt talked with reporters about his new Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color show on NBC TV, he said that he wasn't going to make any more of the Tomorrowland space shows because they were just too expensive.

Disney executive Donn Tatum, in an interview with writer Richard Hubler, stated, "Our experience was that they don't have as broad an appeal audience-wise and they are expensive to do and generally speaking the networks and the advertisers, while they didn't have any direct control over what we did, they would prefer things that got a bigger rating."

The first show had cost $250,000 to produce, but by the time of the final show about Mars, the costs had soared to $450,000, because of the need of original animation to fill in the gaps for missing live-action footage that could be used. ABC would only pay $50,000 to $70,000 for an episode and roughly $25,000 for each repeat airing. Walt believed so strongly in presenting the material that his studio paid for the extra quality and filming in color to create shows that are still considered outstanding today.

Mars and Beyond, the third installment of the trilogy, first aired December 4, 1957. While this episode includes some actual history about man's fascination and beliefs about the celestial bodies, it soon shifts into the idea of life on other planets, specifically Mars. Animation illustrates the fancies of authors like H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (John Carter of Mars).

Then there is an iconic segment that parodies the pulp science-fiction comic books of the time with the secretary of a rocket scientist captured by a flying saucer and taken to Mars where she is able to defeat the nasty aliens and return home to Earth.

The program then shifts into more serious speculation about man exploring other planets coming to the conclusion that surviving life on Mars would be the most probable option. The show ends with an animated segment showing humans journeying to Mars in ships designed by Ernst Stuhlinger.

The show begins with a towering mechanical man introducing Walt.

Garco: "Ladies and gentlemen, here is your host Walt Disney."

Walt: "Thank you, Garco. In this exciting age when everyone seems to be talking about the future possibilities of space travel, there is much speculation on what we will discover when we visit other worlds.

"Will we find planets with only a low form of vegetable life or will there be mechanical robots controlled by super intelligent beings? (Walt points to Garco and then looks and smiles at the mechanical man).

"One of the most fascinating fields of modern science deals with the possibility of life on other planets. This is our story."

The science fiction parody cartoon and the introduction with Garco and Walt are featured among the film clips shown on a loop at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater restaurant at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Images of Walt and Garco have also been used at Space Mountain at Walt Disney World and Innoventions at Disneyland.

There are a series of color publicity stills of Walt goofing around with Garco off camera, even playfully sparring with the robot.

Images of Walt and Garco can be seen at the Sci-Fi Dine In at Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World.

Today, Disney fans don't realize that Garco had been a Hollywood star and was not a creation of the Disney Studio for the show.

I've written about Garco before at MousePlanet, but, over the last decade, I found much more information although I still don't have a clue to where Garco finally ended up and apparently, neither does anyone else.

Robots have been around since the days of classical mythology where Vulcan created mechanical servants. In approximately 1495, before he began work on The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci designed and possibly built the first humanoid robot in Western civilization.

This armored robot knight was designed to sit up, wave its arms, and move its head thanks to a flexible neck while opening and closing its anatomically correct jaw. Similar mechanical creations have popped up over the centuries to entertain and amaze audiences.

At the 1939 New York World's Fair, the robot Elektro was a resident of the Westinghouse pavilion in the Fair's Production and Distribution Zone. He was manufactured by Westinghouse in a plant in Mansfield, Ohio. He stood 7-feet tall and weighed 300 pounds.

As part of his 20-minute presentation, he would walk, move his hands and arms, smoke cigarettes and speak by means of a 78 rpm record player. During the Fair's 1940 season, he was joined by Sparko, a robot dog who could speak, sit and beg.

When Elektro was exhibited in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, Terry Chapman, the young son of the builder of Garco, playfully pasted a card saying "Garco was here" on Elektro's chest.

Terry was very protective of Garco and as he grew older, supplied Garco's voice at various events as he answered questions from the audience.

Garco the robot was born in 1953. He was a natural publicity opportunity and would pop up in photos from stacking boxes in a warehouse to acting as a robot baseball umpire.

In June 1954, Garco was called into service as "Hollywood's first mechanical press agent" for the recently released science fiction film Gog that featured a deadly robot going out of control at the climax of the film.

According to a press release, "Garco, who represents a million dollars in electronic research, plans a personal appearance tour of the country in behalf of the movie."

A photo of Garco with starlet Sally Mansfield (who was a regular on the TV show Rocky Jones, Space Ranger playing Vena Ray) promoting the film often is published. Garco is at a typewriter supposedly typing out a press release on a classic manual typewriter.

Garco became a music critic for the May 29, 1954, episode of the late night Juke Box Jury (a local Los Angeles CBS show) hosted by Peter Potter with a panel of celebrity judges who would critique the latest musical releases. That episode also included Ann Robinson, Tab Hunter, Bea Benaderet, Gil Stratton and Virginia Grey as judges, as well.

Garco appeared on Jack Bailey's Queen for a Day television show sometime in 1959-1960. He was challenged on the Dave Garroway television show on May 1959 to play the celesta (looking like an upright piano but with the keys connected to hammers that strike a graduated set of metal plates or bars suspended over wooden resonators creating an "other-worldy" type of sound). Around the same time, Garco made an appearance on the Dick Clark Show.

Science Fiction Theater was a ZIV-TV production of 78 episodes that were syndicated over NBC stations between April 1955 to February 1957 and then were rerun on various local affiliate stations. It was advertised as "stories of fiction from the borderlands of science."

The host was Truman Bradley and, in the episode early in the series called Time is Just a Place, by science-fiction director Jack Arnold (based on a story by Jack Finney), Garco popped up behind Bradley who was introducing the episode.

In 1957, Garco popped up on the Mars and Beyond episode, the last of a trilogy of films directed by Ward Kimball for the "Tomorrowland" segment of the Disneyland television show on ABC.

Beside the future of space travel, Walt was also fascinated by mechanical things like Garco and how they operated. It is even possible that Garco's control harness arm helped inspire the early control harness for the first human audio-animatronics like the one developed in 1963 for the Carousel of Progress attraction.

For this television episode, Paul Frees provided the voice for the robot, as well as the narration for the program.

Garco was built in ninety days of "intensive work day and night" in 1953 by Harvey Chapman, an engineer for the Garrett Manufacturing Company of Los Angeles (which explains the "Garrett" name plate on the front of Garco on the Disneyland TV show) in his home garage out of discarded airplane parts. Chapman received patents, D171439 issued February 1954 and 2858947 issued November 1958 for Garco. Garco was originally meant for display at the Western Metals Exposition (where he delighted guests by pouring himself a drink of oil) at the Garrett Supply Company booth.

Garco weighed 235 pounds and stood 5-feet 8-inches tall but he could telescope his legs and grow six inches taller. Some 200 small screws hold the front and back aluminum plates on the robot. They had to be removed frequently so Chapman could check the inner mechanism.

The name "Garco" came from Garrett Company and it was estimated that the parts had cost roughly $1,000, but Garco was not for sale.

"What father," asked Chapman, "would put his own child on the auction block? Garco, incidentally, is insured for $10,000. To reproduce him would cost some $40,000 for labor and parts."

Although Garco started out as a publicity stunt, like many of the other so-called mechanical men like Elecktro, that appeared in the decades before Garco, Chapman, when he was interviewed by Popular Science magazine for its December 1953 issue, felt that his creation should be taken more seriously.

Chapman stated: "Garco is a well-oiled creature of Convair gear trains, Constellation electrical actuators, and DC-6 cabin-pressure regulators, plus electronic circuits and enough sheet metal to make him decent. With the aid of a vacuum applied through his rubber-tipped fingers, he can pick up light objects with commendable delicacy. His brain is electronic, a neat accumulation of six aircraft servo systems. His nervous system consists of 1,200 feet of wire cable. A two-way radio transmitter enables him to make pertinent remarks."

He felt that creations like Garco could be utilized to do a lot of the highly dangerous but necessary jobs, like mixing the ingredients for experimental explosives, handling deadly bacteria, welding, handling radioactive material, salvaging items from underwater and perhaps even piloting the first rocket to the moon. Generally, environments that were dangerous to human beings could be survived by mechanical counterparts.

At this same time period, General Electric had developed an electromechanical head for testing oxygen masks at sub-zero temperatures, and a mechanical hand for fiddling with "hot" materials at Hanford and other AEC plants.

According to the Popular Science article:

"Chapman brings Garco to apparent life by first opening the circuits and sending electricity surging into the complex metal body. He then lays his right arm along a five-jointed electro-mechanical control arm, which has a handgrip at the end of it.

"The joints can be moved up and down, in and out. As Chapman twists and turns his own arm—and the control arm along with it—Garco's right arm moves in exactly the same way. Garco is so sensitive, in fact, that if Chapman's hand shakes, Garco's does, too.

"As the joints in the control arm move through six electric channels they notify sensing devices in Garco's electronic brain that they have disturbed the balance in many Wheatstone-bridge systems. The disturbance of each fires an electronic tube, which in turn fires a relay tube, which actuates one of the five horsepower motors in Garco's right arm.

"So much for the right arm, Garco's left is manipulated by 22 push buttons, mounted on the case of the control arm. The push buttons, in addition to working Garco's left hand and arm, move the robot's jaws and lips, increase his height six inches, roll his plastic eyes and enable him to bow at the hip.

"Both of Garco's arms contain five tiny actuator motors. Three apply torque, representing the ball joints of a man's shoulder and elbow; the others, taking the place of tendons, apply linear push and pull."

Besides his movie, magazine and television appearances, Garco performed at several charity events, science fairs and factory demonstrations.

The Los Angeles Times on July 31, 1961 reported:

"Garco Shows Signs of Wear, Will Retire

"A mechanical man who can play chess, mix drinks, hammer nails and carry out other assignments with human encouragement will retire from active duty soon. His mechanism is breaking down. The Garrett Corp. owns the robot.

"'We are hoping to find a permanent home for him in the Smithsonian Institute or some other museum where he can be preserved for posterity,' said Mickey Parr, a company spokesman.

"Workers who built him eight years ago with surplus aircraft parts call him 'Garco.' They contend he has had more activity in his short lifetime than the average man sees in a span of 70 years.

"Since 1953, Garco has taken part in several motion pictures, television shows, commercials and appeared at numerous charity events. Garco cut the ribbon at the 'Into The Future'-themed Arizona State Fair in November 1957.

"But from the start Garco proved to be a delicate child. His problems arose from mechanical sickness, often causing his operating system to break down. As a result, the company always kept an engineer assigned to Garco. The engineer in charge of the mechanical man would keep Garco in his garage at home.

"Presently, Garco is receiving mechanical doctoring from Gray Rollo, 5308 Clearsight St.

"'I've had a lot of fun working on him,' Rollo said, 'and at times I wonder if he isn't really human. He certainly acts more intelligently than some people I know.'"

Over the decades, many people, myself included, have tried to track down the final fate for Garco, but answers have proven elusive.

In June 2013, Terry Chapman (aka Harry Chapman III) who was then 69-years old wrote: "My father did not own 'Garco'. The Garrett Corp. did. He most probably went to Disney. I would also like to know where he is, as well."

No, Garco did not end up at Disney (although his one-minute appearance on television with Walt Disney has made him a well-known celebrity to this day) and it would be fun to see him at a D23 Expo, but for now his whereabouts are unknown.