How Robots Left the Lab and Started Helping Humans

Computers were the size of refrigerators—or larger—but robots were on their way

This is not what the world's first industrial robot looked like. MaxPixel

Years before personal computers, at the end of the 1950s, robots were already working in factories–or at least one was.

The Unimate 1900 series was the first mass-produced robotic arm for use in factories, and one of, if not the first, practial application of robotics outside the lab. Its inventor, George C. Devol, registered to patent his “Programmed Article Transfer” on this day in 1954.  Just five years later, after numerous tweaks and changes and with the help of Devol’s business partner Joseph Engelberger, it went to work on the factory floor at General Motors, writes Rebecca J. Rosen for The Atlantic.

“The arm weighed 4,000 pounds and cost $25,000,” she writes. It may have started “a revolution in manufacturing that continues to this day,” writes Bob Malone for IEEE Spectrum, but originally, Devol wasn’t quite sure how to pitch his idea to potential buyers. That’s until he met Engelberger at a party in 1956, according to a number of accounts.

Devol’s invention with the unsexy name could be programmed to perform specific tasks by manipulating items in several directions. Engelberger, who loved the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, said “Sounds like a robot to me,” according to the Robotic Industries Association. At the time, robots had been imagined and extensively written about in speculative fiction, from the Russian play that coined the word in 1920 to the work of midcentury American authors such as Asimov and Ray Bradbury. But real robotics was in its infancy, and robots hadn’t yet left the lab.

Devol’s robotic arm might seem familiar to anyone who has watched videos of a production line, as successors to the Unimate are used to this day. The Unimate 1900 series robots could be programmed with instructions that were stored on a magnetic drum, and their arm was capable of exerting 4,000 pounds of pressure at a variety of angles, writes the Robots Hall of Fame, meaning they were “versatile enough to perform a variety of tasks.”

Car Factory - Kia Sportage factory production line

The original patent for the arm acknowledged that machines had been programmed before, for example weaving machines, which were programmed using punch cards as early as the 1800s. However, Devol wrote in the patent, “The routine job of transporting one article after another from a supply point to a delivery point has not heretofore been met with flexible programming.” Rather than have humans control machines in order to perform tedious tasks such as doing welding on cars or moving parts from one place to another, he advocated for “Universal automation or ‘Unimation’” with, you guessed it, the Unimate.

Although Devol had the know-how to both perceive a problem and devise its solution, Engelberger’s position as the director of a company that made controls for heavy machinery and other devices, as well as his sales experience, made him an ideal person to get funding for the idea and take it to market, writes the Robotic Industries Association.

Mindful of the uphill battle he would face from manufacturers, and motivated by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics that relate a ‘first do no harm’ philosophy similar to the Hippocratic Oath, Engelberger focused on employing the robots in tasks harmful to humans,” writes the association.

This philosophy helped to endear the Unimate to General Motors. The first use of the Unimate was in diecasting. It lifted red hot metal from where it had been cast and placed it in cooling liquid, a task both uncomfortable and potentially hazardous for human operators using tongs or other devices to help them perform the same motion. In short order, writes the association, 450 diecasting robots were on GM plant floors, and manufacturing would never be the same.

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