Joseph F. Engelberger, an American physicist, engineer, and businessman, was responsible for the birth of one the most important and impactful industries, gaining him global recognition as the Father of Robotics.
In 1956, Engelberger met American engineer and inventor George C. Devol at a cocktail party where the two discussed the writer Isaac Asimov’s robot philosophies and Devol’s patent-pending Programmed Article Transfer device. Engelberger identified the device as a robot, the first ever, and conceived of how it could be used in manufacturing, in particular to perform jobs dangerous to humans.
By 1959 the first robot prototype was developed and Engelberger immediately set out to convince top American manufacturers in the automotive industry of its benefits. General Motors was the first to take interest so in the 1961 the first industrial robot Unimate was in operation on a General Motors assembly line at the Inland Fisher Guide Plant in Ewing Township, New Jersey
The 4000 pound robotic arm transported die castings from an assembly line and welded these parts on auto bodies, a dangerous task for workers, who could be poisoned by exhaust gas or lose a limb if they were not careful.
In 1961 Engelberger established Unimation, Inc., a Condec Corp. company in Danbury, Connecticut, to develop the business in the newly established robotics industry he created. That same year, Engelberger introduced the Unimate 1900 to the public at a trade show at Chicago’s Cow Palace. In 1966, television audiences around the world got to see the robot for the first time as Johnny Carson welcomed the Unimate on the Tonight Show. In this live broadcast from NBC Studios in New York City, Engelberger had the robot perform several tricks to wow viewers, including knocking a golf ball into a cup, pouring a beer, and conducting the Tonight Show band.
By 1966 Engelberger sought to broaden the customer base outside of the United States. He licensed Nokia of Finland to manufacture the robots in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. After an invitation to speak to 400 Japanese executives in Tokyo who were interested in robotics for manufacturing, Engelberger signed a licensing agreement in 1969 with Kawasaki Heavy Industries (now Kawasaki Robotics) to manufacture and market the Unimate robots for the Asian market.
With the help of the Unimate, General Motors revolutionized the automotive industry. The Europeans were quick to follow suit and companies like BMW, Volvo, Mercedes Benz, British Leyland, and Fiat installed Unimate robotic arms to perform jobs that were unpleasant and dangerous for humans.
From a two-dimensional drawing to an industrial and societal revolution, the Unimate robot remains one of the most significant contributions in the past one hundred years not only to manufacturing but to civilization. It has left a living legacy in an industry to which it gave birth. As a result of the Unimate, the field of robotics continues to expand beyond manufacturing to virtually every facet of human life and service.