Whatever Happened to Walt’s Robot Friend, Garco?

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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While WALL-E may be the newest Disney robot enjoying his moment of celebrity, he is not the robot that stands out in my mind when I think of Disney. That honor belongs to Garco who shared the television screen briefly with Walt Disney himself in the late 1950s.

I first saw Garco in a later rerun of the Disneyland television series, but apparently he was a celebrity robot during the 1950s.  Just like some of today’s celebrity starlets, he was most famous for being famous and had a very limited range of talents but certainly took advantage of as many photo opportunities as he could. 

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.

However, today we usually think of robots in terms of science fiction and outer space and Garco was very much a part of that culture. 

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.”  If you browse the Internet, you can usually find a photo of Garco with starlet Sally Mansfield (who was a regular on the TV show Rocky Jones, Space Ranger) promoting the film.  Garco is at a typewriter supposedly typing out a press release on a classic manual typewriter.

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 was 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 “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.

Not long afterward, Garco popped up with another television host on a much more popular television series.

Mars and Beyond (December 4, 1957) was the last of a trilogy of films directed by Ward Kimball for the “Tomorrowland” segment of the Disneyland television show on ABC.  Garco introduces Walt Disney and they joke a bit before the episode that is primarily an animated history of mankind’s fascination with outer space, especially the planet Mars, as well a more serious exploration about the possibility of journeying to the red planet. 

The animation of wild speculation of possible Martian creatures led Walt Disney to proclaim to director Kimball, “How do you guys come up with all these crazy ideas?”

Walt never seemed to be a fan of science fiction but he loved science fact and the futuristic speculation that revolved around those facts.  In the 1950s, he wanted Tomorrowland at Disneyland to be “science factual” which is why he didn’t include UFOs and little green men.  Walt was also fascinated by mechanical things and I wonder how much Garco might have excited Walt about the possibility of Audio-Animatronics.

Since legendary voice artist Paul Frees was the narrator of the episode, I often wondered if he also provided the voice for “Garco” for this segment.

This classic episode (along with the rest of the trilogy) is available on the DVD Walt Disney Treasures Tomorrowland: Disney in Space and Beyond.

You can check out a picture of Walt and Garco here, then spend a little more time exploring Jeff Pepper’s entertaining and accurate Web site devoted to Disney oddities.

But was the origin of Garco and how did he work?

Garco was built in 1953 by Harvey Chapman, an engineer for the Garrett Supply Company of Los Angeles (which explains the “Garrett” name plate on the front of Garco on the Disneyland TV show) in three months in his home garage out of discarded airplane parts.

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

Garco’s brain was electronic using six aircraft servo systems.  His nervous system consisted of 1,200 feet of wire cable.  A two-way radio transmitter enabled Garco to make pertinent remarks.

Chapman 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, handle deadly bacteria, weld, handle radioactive material, salvage items from underwater and perhaps even pilot the first rocket to the moon.

According to the 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 electromechanical 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.”

To me, this sounds very similar to the contorl harness Imagineer Wathel Rogers demonstrated for the early Audio-Animatronics for the Carousel of Progress.

“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 hips.

“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.”

Many mysteries still surround Garco. Why was he named “Garco”? Did each letter stand for something?  Whatever happened to Garco?  He seems to disappear from the publicity circuit in the 1960s perhaps replaced by more modern counterparts like Robby the Robot.

To me, it is a joy seeing Walt interact playfully with Garco, something that is even more apparent in the behind-the-scenes publicity photos where Walt even spars with the mechanical man. Will WALL-E be remembered in another half-century or like Garco will he be just another example of a forgotten "Future Past"?