Any mention of the word “robot” today can bring no more than a shrug or perhaps a question about what movie you are talking about. That was not the case 70 years ago. “Robot,” “mechanical man,” “automaton,” “mannequin” and “tin can” were all popularly used to refer to moving figurines.
One of the most successful inventors of automatons was Frank Dale.
Dale was born in 1897 in northwest Missouri. The family moved south to Prosperity, where they operated a wood and coal business. He went to high school in Webb City. He wanted to attend college, but his father objected, saying, “No son of his was fitten (sic) for book learning until he could do something with his hands.” Instead, he apprenticed his son to learn steam and mechanical engineering. It prepared him for a career no one could have predicted in the 1910s.
Dale did attend Kansas State University. He enlisted in the Marines during World War I and mustered out as a second lieutenant. As a champion boxer in the Marines, he made friends with Franklyn Hutton, brother of investor E.F. Hutton.
Dale worked as a successful salesman for Goodrich Rubber Co. and Congoleum and later moved to Pleasantville, New York, to work for Quaker State Oil. In 1936, he conceived the idea of a gadget to attract motorists to a service station. He tinkered with “tin cans, mop pails, tobacco containers, a section of stovepipe, a cooking pot and a rusty oil drum” to create his first automaton. His “Frankenstein” beaned him on the head when its arm fell off.
That year, Dale’s wife became ill. Her doctor prescribed a move to Florida or she would be crippled for life. Dale quit his job and moved to Florida along with his creation.
In Florida, Dale took his tin man to a service station in Miami, set him up and hid in the station. As customers drove up, the attendant would greet them by name, and Dale would startle them by speaking through the tin man. He would keep up a running chatter, and often the customer would buy additional services or products. He set up the tin man in other Quaker State stations, which all saw increased sales.
Making mechanical figures
After a year, the couple were ready to return to New York. The owner of the chain of service stations called him in. Saying he didn’t want to owe anybody anything, he showed Dale the profits he had earned using the tin man over the previous year’s sales. He paid Dale 5 percent of the amount, which came to $11,000.
Dale had applied for patents on his mechanical figures. In the interim, he tried the house trailer business but went bankrupt. In 1938, his patent was approved. So he pivoted, establishing Mechanical Man Inc. to make mechanical figurines for advertising.
The Wilson Whiskey Co. was his first account. An animated man made with a Wilson whiskey bottle for his body would bow and salute. Wilson bought 200 of the figurines with the promise each dealer would put the man in a window and surround him only with bottles of Wilson whiskey.
His next account was for Chesterfield cigarettes. However, once the company reviewed Dale’s credit history, it canceled the order. The company had been saddled with poorly equipped gadgets from another business and was wary of his new company. His longtime friendship with Hutton paid off when Hutton decided to partner with Dale. With Hutton’s support, Dale won back the Chesterfield account.
The SweetHeart Soap Co. baby became one of his enduring creations. The automaton was a baby laying in a bassinet. It could hold a rattle or a cake of SweetHeart soap, advertised as “delicate enough for a baby.”
The figure had a variety of interchangeable heads, arms and legs. With a 28-foot cord, it could be placed anywhere in a store window. It proved to be a winner for the soap company. Thinking of figurines as a Hollywood promotion, he even made two animated figurines of actress Mae West.
Slowed by war
World War II threw his company into a tailspin. In 1940, he had theorized that his automatons could be used as armed robots as a defensive measure at strategic places. However, he never got the chance to promote that possibility. Wartime rationing of materials made advertising promotions a low priority.
Always creative, he designed model planes to teach servicemen to recognize Allied and enemy planes. He sold 3.5 million of them to the government.
After the war, Dale devised one of his most humane patents. He attended a Marine dance where a young man who had lost an arm was taking his date to the dance floor. When his metal hook reached around and touched her bare back, she fainted. That inspired Dale to invent a mechanical arm and hand that would fit on the wearer’s upper arm and shoulder with a balloon to open and close the hand. He assigned his patent to the U.S. Navy.
After World War II, he did some initial work animating characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Pinocchio for Walt Disney. He was offered a job by Disney to continue doing animation work, but he turned it down, thinking it to be too time-consuming. Through the 1950s, he worked on a wide variety of projects, such as model airplanes, jet engine blades and shoe insoles.
In a Globe interview in 1977, Dale, at 81, was still thinking of new advertising opportunities using animated characters. For him, the wheels were always turning.
Note: Thanks to Debbie Cornell for pointing me to Frank Dale’s creations.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to email@example.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.