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A Brief History of Robots

A brief review of robot development is important because it puts the current machines and interest in them into a historical perspective. The following list of dates highlights the growth of automated machines which led to the development of the industrial robots currently available today.

Joseph Jacquard invents a textile machine which is operated by punch cards. The machine is called a programmable loom and goes into mass production.

American Christopher Spencer designs a cam-operated lathe.

In the United States, Seward Babbitt designs a motorized crane with gripper to remove ingots from a furnace.

The first reference to the word robot appears in a play opening in London. The play, written by Czechoslovakian Karel Capek, introduces the word robot from the Czech robota, which means a serf or one in subservient labour. From this beginning the concept of a robot takes hold.

Americans Willard Pollard and Harold Roselund design a programmable paint-spraying mechanism for the DeVilbiss Company.

George Devol patents a general purpose playback device for controlling machines. The device uses a magnetic process recorder. In the same year the computer emerges for the first time. American scientists J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly build the first large electronic computer called the Eniac at the University of Pennsylvania. A second computer, the first general-purpose digital computer, dubbed Whirlwind, solves its first problem at M.I.T.

Norbert Wiener, a professor at M.I.T., publishes Cybernetics, a book which describes the concept of communications and control in electronic, mechanical, and biological systems.

A teleoperator-equipped articulated arm is designed by Raymond Goertz for the Atomic Energy Commission.

The first programmable robot is designed by George Devol, who coins the term Universal Automation. He later shortens this to Unimation, which becomes the name of the first robot company.

Planet Corporation markets the first commercially available robot.

Unimation is purchased by Condec Corporation and development of Unimate Robot Systems begins. American Machine and Foundry, later known as AMF Corporation, markets a robot, called the Versatran, designed by Harry Johnson and Veljko Milenkovic.

General Motors installs the first industrial robot on a production line. The robot selected is a Unimate.

Artificial intelligence research laboratories are opened at M.I.T., Stanford Research Institute (SRI), Stanford University, and the University of Edinburgh.

SRI builds and tests a mobile robot with vision capability, called Shakey.

At Stanford University a robot arm is developed which becomes a standard for research projects. The arm is electrically powered and becomes known as the Stanford Arm.

The first commercially available minicomputer-controlled industrial robot is developed by Richard Hohn for Cincinnati Milacron Corporation. The robot is called the T3, The Tomorrow Tool.

Professor Scheinman, the developer of the Stanford Arm, forms Vicarm Inc. to market a version of the arm for industrial applications. The new arm is controlled by a minicomputer.

Robot arms are used on Viking 1 and 2 space probes.Vicarm Inc. incorporates a microcomputer into the Vicarm design.

ASEA, a European robot company, offers two sizes of electric powered industrial robots. Both robots use a microcomputer controller for programming and operation. In the same year Unimation purchases Vicarm Inc.

The Puma (Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly) robot is developed by Unimation from Vicarm techniques and with support from General Motors.

The robot industry starts its rapid growth, with a new robot or company entering the market every month.

When, in 1954 George C. Devol filed a U.S. patent for a programmable method for transferring articles between different parts of a factory, he wrote:
"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."

In 1956 Devol met Joseph F. Engelberger, a young engineer in the aerospace industry. With others, they set up the world's first robot company, Unimation, Inc., and built their first machine in 1958. Their initiative was a great deal ahead of its time; according to Engelberger, Unimation did not show a profit until 1975.

The first industrial robot saw service in 1962 in a car factory run by General Motors in Trenton, New Jersey. The robot lifted hot pieces of metal from a die-casting machine and stacked them.
Japan, by comparison, imported its first industrial robot from AMF in 1967, at which time the United States was a good 10 years ahead in robotics technology. The enormous effort put forth by Japanese industry is best evidenced by the fact that Unimation was eventually reduced to handing over its pioneering robot technology to Kawasaki Heavy Industries in a licensing deal in 1968.

By 1990, there were more than 40 Japanese companies, including giants like Hitachi and Mitsubishi, that were producing commercial robots. By comparison, there were approximately one dozen U.S. firms, led by Cincinnati Milacron and Westinghouse's Unimation. In 1979 the U.S. leader, Unimation, was the only company in the world actively marketing an advanced assembly robot. In 1982, GM, the largest single user of robots in the world, signed a pact with Fanuc Ltd. for a joint robotics venture to make and market robots in the United States. In the first six months of operation, more than half of the 100 robots sold by the joint venture went to GM, locking out other U.S. companies from the largest single buyer in the market.

Robots and the robotics industry will continue to grow at a rapid rate. As technology advances so will the robots that rely so heavily upon these advances.

Robots will become more technical until one day they will become as powerful as we are. . .



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