The Birth of the Industrial Robot
FollowingWorldWar II, America experienced a strong industrial push, reinvigorating the economy. Rapid advancement in technology drove this industrial wave—servos, digital logic, solid state electronics, etc.
The merger of this technology and the world of science fiction came in the form of the vision of Joseph
Engelberger, the ingenuity of George Devol, and their chance meeting in 1956. Joseph F. Engelberger was born on July 26, 1925, in New York City. Growing up, Engelberger developed a fascination for science fiction, especially that written by Isaac Asimov. Of particular interest in the science fiction world was the robot, which led him to pursue physics at Columbia University, where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Engelberger served in the U.S. Navy and later worked as a nuclear physicist in the aerospace industry.
In 1946, a creative inventor by the name of George C. Devol, Jr., patented a playback device used for controlling machines. The device used a magnetic process recorder to accomplish the control. Devol’s drive toward automation led him to another invention in 1954, for which he applied for a patent, writing,
“The present invention makes available for the first time a more or less general purpose machine that has universal application to a vast diversity of applications where cyclic control is desired.” Devol had dubbed his invention universal automation, or unimation for short. Whether it was fate, chance, or just good luck, Devol and Engelberger met at a cocktail party in 1956. Their conversation revolved around robotics, automation, Asimov, and Devol’s patent application, “A Programmed Article Transfer,” which Engelberger’s imagination translated into “robot.” Following this chance meeting, Engelberger and Devol formed a partnership that lead to the birth of the industrial robot.
Engelberger took out a license under Devol’s patent and bought out his employer, renaming the new company Consolidated Controls Corporation, based out of his garage. His team of engineers that had been working on aerospace and nuclear applications refocused their efforts on the development of the first industrial robot, named the Unimate, after Devol’s “unimation.” The first Unimate was born in 1961 and was delivered to GeneralMotors in Trenton, New Jersey, where it unloaded high temperature parts from a die casting machine—a very unpopular job for manual labor. Also in 1961, patent number 2,998,237 was granted to Devol—the first U.S. robot patent. In 1962 with the backing of Consolidated Diesel Electric Company (Condec) and Pullman Corporation, Engelberger formed Unimation, Inc., which eventually blossomed into a prosperous business—GMalone had ordered 66 Unimates. Although it took until 1975 to turn a profit, Unimation became the world leader in robotics, with 1983 annual sales of $70 million and 25 percent of the world market share. For his visionary pursuit and entrepreneurship, Joseph Engelberger is widely considered the “Father of Robotics.” Since 1977, the Robotic Industries Association has presented the annual Engelberger Robotics Awards to world leaders in both application and leadership in the field of robotics.