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Unimate: First Mass-Produced Robot – 1961 AD

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Unimate: First Mass-Produced Robot

George Devol (1912–2011), Joseph F. Engelberger (1925–2015)

After seeing a picture of assembly-line workers in a technical journal, American inventor George Devol wondered if there could be a tool to replace the repetitive, mind-numbing tasks people had to perform. This question led him to design something akin to a mechanical arm, which he patented in 1961, called the Programmed Article Transfer device.

Devol had a fortuitous introduction to engineer and businessman Joseph Engelberger at a cocktail party in 1956. Engelberger, fascinated by Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, immediately recognized the business potential of Devol’s “robot” device. As business partners, they had to perfect the device and convince others to buy it. Engelberger’s sales strategy was to identify jobs that Unimate (the name suggested by Devol’s wife, Evelyn) could do that were dangerous or difficult for humans to perform. General Motors® (GM) was the first to buy into the idea, and in 1959 the Unimate #001 prototype was installed in an assembly line in Trenton, New Jersey. Unimate’s job was to pick up hot door handles that had just been made from molten steel and drop them into cooling liquid before they were sent down the line for human workers to finish polishing. The Unimate would go on to spawn new industries and revolutionize production and manufacturing plants around the world.

The Unimate weighed 4,000 pounds (1,814 kilograms) and was controlled by a series of hydraulics. Memory was stored on a magnetic drum, and pressure sensors inside the arm enabled it to adjust the strength of its grip as needed. Unimate “learned” a job by first having a person manually move its parts in the sequence of steps desired to complete the task. The movements were recorded by its computer and then simply repeated over again.

In 1966, Unimate was featured on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where it demonstrated how it could knock a golf ball into a hole, pour a can of beer, and conduct the Tonight Show orchestra. An early model of this robot can be found at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History; in 2003, the Unimate was inducted into the Carnegie Mellon Robot Hall of Fame.

SEE ALSO Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (1942)

This 52-inch (1.3-meter) -thick, oil-filled glass window protects a nuclear engineer from radiation while he operates a robotic arm at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, 1961.

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