Robotics: A Brief History

Origins of "robot" and "robotics"

    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.
    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, followed:
Law One
        A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Definitions of "robot"

        So what exactly is a robot?  This actually turns out to be a rather difficult question.  Several definitions exist, including the following:
"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."
Webster's Dictionary

 "a reprogrammable manipulator device"

British Department of Industry

 "Robotics is that field concerned with the intelligent connection of perception to action."

Mike Brady

Early Conceptions of Robots

        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.
        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 first modern robots

        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."
        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.