A Brief History of Robotics

The Beginnings

Arguably, robot-like toys have been around for centuries. Similarly, ideas of mechanical or artificial men became increasingly common following the industrial revolution. However, the first use of the word robot was in Karel Capek's (pronounced Chop-ek) 1921 play R.U.R.

Although this dire warning for man not to meddle in things he should not is probably, these days, more relevant to the arguments on genetic engineering, the word robot stuck and became associated with all forms of artificial men.

For twety five years robots continued to thrive primarilly in the world of fiction. Notable highlights include:

  • Fritz Lang's 1926 silent movie Metropolis in which the central character is Robotrix, a robot copy of a female worker's leader designed to help oppress the workers.

  • Asimov's robot short stories introduced the word "robotics", the 3 laws of robotics and the world's first robot psychologist.

Various robot "demonstrators" were also developed in this period including Westinghouse's Electro, shown at the 1939 World's Fair. This talking humanoid robot was supposedly soon to be in homes doing all manner of domestic chores.

Starting Up

The 1940’s and 1950’s showed some real breakthrough’s in robotics. Driven by the imperatives of the atomic bomb programme, the US National Labs in Argonne developed the first teleoperated manipulator (or Master Slave Manipulator) in 1947 and added force feedback in 1948 and a slaved TV system (tracking the manipulator motions) in 1958.

Slightly earlier, in 1946, George Devol (note the name) was granted a patent for a general purpose playback device for machines, or, in current parlance, a teach & repeat device.

The first digital computer (ENIAC) was built in 1945 while Manchester University built the first stored program computer in 1948.

1948 saw the publication of Nobert Wiener‘s influential book “Cybernetics”, outlining his ideas on control & communication in both machines and animals.

George Devol sets up Universal Automation (later shortened to Unimation) with Joseph Engelberger in 1954 and starts work on developing programmable robots.

In 1956 John McCarthy coins the term “Artificial Intelligence” and in 1958 developed the LISP programming language.

The 1950’s also saw two of the most notable robot films, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Forbidden Planet”. Robots as a movie theme were to re-emerge in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Getting Going

Unimation starts developing the Unimate robot following its acquisition by the Condec Corporation in 1960.

In 1961 George Devol is granted a patent (filed 1954) for a “Programmed Article Transfer Machine” otherwise known as an industrial manipulator. 

1962 sees General Motors install the world’s first robot (a Unimate) on a production line. 

IBM introduce the 360 computer in 1964, capable of 2MIPS. 

In 1968 Stanford Research Institute develop what is generally recognised as the world’s first intelligent robot, “Shakey”

Also in 1968 General Electric build a four legged walking “truck” for the US army. It’s movements are slaved to those of the operator.

1970 sees Lunakhod 1 driving on the moon.

Milacron Corporation produce “The Tomorrow Tool” or T3, the first microcomputer controlled industrial manipulator in 1973.

Intel launch the 8080 microprocessor in 1974 

The Altair microprocessor kit is launched in 1975 for $397

To The Present

According to Joseph Engelberger, the first profit is made by Unimation in 1975.

In 1977 Asea produce a microcomputer controlled range of arms. They will go on to be, as ABB, the world’s largest manipulator arm producer.

The 1980’s sees a large growth in industrial manipulators, fuelled mainly by increased quality and decreased product cycle time demands of the car industry.

Advanced robotics is recognised as a strategic technology at the 1982 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development meeting in Versailles. The International Advanced Robotics Programme is set up.

The UK sets up the National Advanced Robotics Research Centre in 1988.

The 1990 sees applications of robotics spreading to service industry sectors and the beginnings of a domestic robot capability.


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