Industrial Robot: Devol and Engelberger invent a machine to perform tasks for humans
Ever since science fiction first described futuristic machines that could perform unpleasant, dangerous or boring tasks for people, inventors and designers have sought to make such dreams a reality. In 1961, following prototype trials, a robotic manipulator called Unimate heralded the dawn of this new exciting era when it began employment on a General Motors assembly line. A stationary industrial robot, Unimate spent its working day moving hot die castings from machines and welding vehicle bodies. Operating from sequential commands stored on a magnetic drum, the robot’s arm, weighing around two tons, was versatile enough to perform any number of different tasks.
Unimate was conceived in the late 1950s by American engineers George Devol (Birth Year: 1912) and Joseph Engelberger (Birth Year: 1925). Its development was undertaken by Engelberger’s company, Unimation Inc. the fledgling industry of industrial robotics grew rapidly and soon a variety of other mundane, tedious or dangerous jobs were being carried out by robots of various types. As the primary use of such robots was initially to move objects from one point to another, less than a few feet away, they were also referred to as “programmable transfer machines”. Using hydraulic actuators, they are programmed-in what is called the “learning phase”-by positioning and recording the angles of the various joints. The resulting sequences are then replayed to perform the required task.
The progeny of Unimate may still be encountered reliably picking and moving different terms but also performing tasks as diverse as bomb disposal, sorting mail and building other robots.