Mechanical elephants….

I know that Britain’s parks and gardens are amazing places, and that some of them had  aviaries and small menageries in them – indeed a few still do – but it was still a surprise to discover this piece of film footage from 1949.

Jumbo is a pretty impressive piece of engineering and  so obviously I wondered what he/she/it was doing in a public park in Hull.    Unfortunately I haven’t been able to discover much more because the local newspaper online archive doesn’t go back that far , and although the Hull History Centre has a webpage devoted to the city’s parks and gardens, including a short entry on Pickering Park, there’s no mention of Jumbo anywhere. Unfortunately our database can’t help either, because try as we might, we  still haven’t got entries on every park in Britain yet and Pickering Park is one that still needs some research, so if you know anything about it please get in touch.

Jumbo was the brainchild of Frank Smith, a mechanically-minded coach driver, and  his real home wasn’t  a park in Hull but a garage in Morecambe!   Here he is, being led by Mr Smith’s son Eric along the  seafront promenade.  Indeed Morecambe became the home of a whole herd of mechanical pachyderms as Mr Smith then sold the patent to a local company who went into mass  – perhaps even mammoth  – production.  One of them has just been restored and was back at work recently:

Elephant returns to Lancashire

The whole story of Frank Smith and his invention is fascinating and can be found in various press cuttings & photos as well as a long letter written by his son which can be found on a wonderful website devoted to all things to do with early robots and cybernetic animals.

Morecambe Gazette 15th April 1983 from:

Morecambe Gazette 15th April 1983

Smith-mechanical-elephant-MkII-no 3-x640I don’t want to steal all their thunder or all of the many surprises and eccentricities that you’ll find on cybernetic zoo but can’t resist sharing an extract from just one more cutting… and just how British is this?










Frank Smith’s home-made elephant was, however, by no means unique. A rival company existed  in Essex at about the same time and produced much larger “electrophants” which according to the manufacturer were taken around all the seaside resorts in the country.

You can find the full story of Frank Stuart and his elephants recorded in a lengthy article for the local newspaper, the Essex Chronicle in 2012,

But in brief: the original developments took place at Thaxted in the late 1940s and early 50s which produced a Ford petrol engine driven version of which up to 25 full size and half-size models were produced.Unfortunately there was a slight design fault and the exhaust fumes emitted from the elephant’s trunk caused the children riding on the back to choke. A later model was electrically driven using conventional car batteries but it too suffered from design problems: poor distribution of weight between the batteries and the riders caused one to topple over.  But Stuart and his colleagues were undaunted and eventually Bertha the Bionic elephant appeared on Blue Peter in 1967:

The elephants were also sold abroad, especially America, where one apparently was ridden by General Eisenhower at the Republican Party Convention in Atlanta in 1952:

Mechanical Elephants in America

Another, called – surprise surprise – Nellie,  ended up in Adelaide where it still leads the Christmas Pageant! There’s a short video clip showing how she works at:

Nellie the Elephant

and if you want to see how they move take a quick look at Jeremy Clarkson riding one down a country lane – and you can probably imagine what he has to say about the need for an MOT certificate on a 60 year old mechanical elephant.

Paignton-Mechanical-Elephant-1950s-detailUnsurprisingly there’s lots more where all this came from!  Its one of the great joys of garden history that one ends up exploring wonderfully diverse by-ways, so if you’re interested in following up the myths and realities of robotic elephants or other creatures,  from ancient indian stories or the life-sized mechanical elephant that featured in a mediaeval feast right through to Jules Verne’s Steam House tales set in the Indian Mutiny, or the latest Pneubots then the best place to start is undoubtedly:

The enormous ‘walking’ mechanical elephant that was ridden by President Eisenhower at the 1952 Republican National Convention which was sold at auction in 2007

And finally have you any idea which four sites on our database have mentions of elephants?

Thought not!








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