A Curious History of Robotics

The Curious History of Robots

The history of automatons or robots combines the best that science fiction can offer and real life technology that continues to evolve at a frightening rate. From Isaac Asimov to fully automated industrial robots, explore the fascinating history of robotics.

Although the science of robotics only began to flourish in the 20th century, the history of robots and human-invented automation has a much more lingering past.

For instance, the ancient Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria, produced two texts, Pneumatica and Automata, that ponder the existence of hundreds of different kinds of “wonder” machines capable of automated movement.

Today, the evolution of robots in the 20th and 21st centuries has advanced radically enough to encompass machines that are capable of assembling other machines and robots that maintain astonishing resemblances to human beings.

Where did the term robot come from?

The word ‘robotics’ was inadvertently conceived by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in his short story “Liar!”, published in 1941. From the ancient myth of Pygmalion to Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL 9000, many science fiction authors throughout history have been interested in mankind’s ability to produce self-motivating machines and lifeforms. Robots actually owe quite a debt to science fiction masters like Isaac Asimov.

Essentially, a robot is a programmable machine that is capable of simple or complex movement in the completion of a task. Robots use special coding that differentiates them from other machines and machine tools, such as CNC.

Robots have found uses in a wide variety of industries due to their robust resistance capabilities and precision function.

Historical Robots

There are many ancient sources that corroborate the popularity of automatons in ancient and Medieval times.

Ancient Greeks and Romans developed simple automatons for use as tools, toys, and as part of religious ceremonies. Predating modern robots in industry, the Greek God Hephaestus was supposed to have built automatons to assist him in a workshop. Unfortunately, none of the early automatons have survived.

In the Middle Ages, automatons were popular as part of clocks and religious worship, in both Europe and the Middle East. The Arab polymath Al-Jazari (1136-1206) left documentation describing and illustrating various mechanical devices, including a large elephant clock that moved and sounded at the hour, a musical robot band and a waitress automaton that served drinks.

In Europe, there is an automaton monk extant that kisses the cross in its hands. Many other automata were created that showed moving animals and humanoid figures that operated on simple cam systems, but in the 18th century, automata were understood well enough and technology advanced to the point where much more complex pieces could be made.

French engineer Jacques de Vaucanson is credited with creating the first successful biomechanical automaton, a human figure that plays a flute. Automata were so popular that they traveled Europe entertaining heads of state such as Frederick the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Victorian Robots

The Industrial Revolution and the increased emphasis on engineering, mathematics and science in England in the Victorian age added to the momentum towards actual robotics.

Charles Babbage (1791-1871), whose most successful projects were the difference engine and the analytical engine, developed the substratum of computer science in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Although they were never completed due to a lack of funds, the machines laid out the basics for mechanical calculations. Others such as Ada Lovelace recognised the future possibilities of computers which could create images or play music.

Automata continued to provide entertainment during the 19th century alongside the development of steam-powered engines and machines that helped to speed up manufacturing and make it more efficient. Factories began to employ machines that either helped to increase work loads or provided better precision in the production of many products.

The Twentieth Century to Today

In 1920, Karel Capek published his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), which introduced the word “robot” to the World. It was taken from an old Slavic word that loosely translated as “monotonous or forced labor.” However, it was over thirty years before the first industrial robot went into production.

In the 1950s, George Devol designed the Unimate, a robotic arm device that transported die castings in a General Motors plant in New Jersey, which started work in 1961. Unimation, the company Devol founded with robotic entrepreneur Joseph Engelberger, was the first robot manufacturing company.

The robot was originally seen as a curiosity, to the extent that it even appeared on The Tonight Show in 1966. Soon, robotics began to develop into another tool in the industrial manufacturing arsenal.

Robotics became a burgeoning science and more money was invested. Robots spread to Japan, South Korea and many parts of Europe over the last half century, to the extent that projections for the 2011 population of industrial robots are around 1.2 million.

Additionally, robots have found a place in other spheres, as toys and entertainment, military weapons, search and rescue assistants, and many other jobs. Essentially, as programming and technology improve, robots find their way into many jobs that in the past have been too dangerous, dull or impossible for humans to achieve.

Indeed, robots are being launched into space to complete the next stages of extraterrestrial and extrasolar research.