Robotics: A Brief History
The word "robot" conjures
up a variety of images, from R2D2 and C3PO of Star Wars fame; to
human-like machines that exist to serve their creators (perhaps in the
form of the cooking and cleaning Rosie in the popular cartoon
series the Jetsons); to the Rover Sojourner, which explored the
Martian landscape as part of the Mars Pathfinder mission. Some people
may alternatively perceive robots as dangerous technological ventures that
will someday lead to the demise of the human race, either by outsmarting
or outmuscling us and taking over the world, or by turning us into completely
technology-dependent beings who passively sit by and program robots to
do all of our work. In fact, the first use of the word "robot" occurred
in a play about mechanical men that are built to work on factory assembly
lines and that rebel against their human masters. These machines
in R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), written by Czech playwright
Karl Capek in 1921, got their name from the Czech word for slave.
Origins of "robot" and
The word "robotics"
was also coined by a writer. Russian-born American science-fiction
writer Isaac Asimov first used the word in 1942 in his short story "Runabout."
Asimov had a much brighter and more optimistic opinion of the robot's role
in human society than did Capek. He generally characterized the robots
in his short stories as helpful servants of man and viewed robots as "a
better, cleaner race." Asimov also proposed three "Laws of Robotics"
that his robots, as well as sci-fi robotic characters of many other stories,
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human
being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such
orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does
not conflict with the First or Second Law.
So what exactly is a robot? This actually turns out to be a rather
difficult question. Several definitions exist, including the following:
Definitions of "robot"
"A reprogrammable, multifunctional manipulator
designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through
various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of task."
Robot Institute of America, 1979
"An automatic device that performs functions
normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human."
"a reprogrammable manipulator device"
British Department of Industry
"Robotics is that field concerned with the intelligent
connection of perception to action."
One of the first instances of a mechanical device built to regularly carry
out a particular physical task occurred around 3000 B.C.: Egyptian
water clocks used human figurines to strike the hour bells. In 400
B.C., Archytus of Taremtum, inventor of the pulley and the screw, also
invented a wooden pigeon that could fly. Hydraulically-operated statues
that could speak, gesture, and prophecy were commonly constructed in Hellenic
Egypt during the second century B.C.
Early Conceptions of
In the first century A.D., Petronius Arbiter made a doll that could move
like a human being. Giovanni Torriani created a wooden robot that
could fetch the Emperor's daily bread from the store in 1557. Robotic
inventions reached a relative peak (before the 20th century) in the 1700s;
countless ingenius, yet impractical, automata (i.e. robots) were created
during this time period. The 19th century was also filled with new
robotic creations, such as a talking doll by Edison and a steam-powered
robot by Canadians. Although these inventions throughout history
may have planted the first seeds of inspiration for the modern robot, the
scientific progress made in the 20th century in the field of robotics surpass
previous advancements a thousandfold.
The earliest robots as we know them were created in the early 1950s by
George C. Devol, an inventor from Louisville, Kentucky. He invented
and patented a reprogrammable manipulator called "Unimate," from "Universal
Automation." For the next decade, he attempted to sell his product
in the industry, but did not succeed. In the late 1960s, businessman/engineer
Joseph Engleberger acquired Devol's robot patent and was able to modify
it into an industrial robot and form a company called Unimation to produce
and market the robots. For his efforts and successes, Engleberger
is known in the industry as "the Father of Robotics."
The first modern robots
Academia also made much progress in the creation new robots. In 1958
at the Stanford Research Institute, Charles Rosen led a research team in
developing a robot called "Shakey." Shakey was far more advanced
than the original Unimate, which was designed for specialized, industrial
applications. Shakey could wheel around the room, observe the scene
with his television "eyes," move across unfamiliar surroundings, and to
a certain degree, respond to his environment. He was given his name
because of his wobbly and clattering movements.