The Hidden Truth About the Cold War Roomba

Over at Paleofuture, Matt Novak looks back at the 1959 Cold War cultural exhibitions hosted by both the United States and the Soviet Union. For the United States, the Moscow exhibition was a chance to show off the newest products and technology from companies like IBM, Sears and Kodak—and perhaps the most important innovation of all when it came to highlighting America’s high-tech future:

Today the autonomous robot vacuum cleaner is passé. Or at the very least, no longer representative of something terribly futuristic. iRobot, the Boston-based company that makes the Roomba, has been churning those things out for over a decade. But in 1959, there was nothing more techno-utopian. The Exhibition had one, thanks to RCA/Whirlpool and a little bit of trickery.

The Exhibition had four demonstration kitchens, but the RCA/Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen was by far the most futuristic. It promised super-fast meal preparation, push-button everything, and automatic robot cleaners. There were even large TV monitors for monitoring different parts of the home, which reportedly impressed Khrushchev. But not everything worked exactly as the exhibitors claimed.

“They had a two-way mirror with a person sitting behind it that could see the room,” Joe Maxwell told me over the phone in his light southern drawl. “And they radio-controlled the vacuum cleaner and the dishwasher.”

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Photo: Library of Congress, via Shorpy