Fictional depictions such as these are startlingly accurate, since sci-fi has paved the way for our acceptance of each generation of robots. Capeks prophecies were fulfilled when robots made their first real impression on the factory floor in the 1960s. The inventor not Rossum, but George Devol holds the first patent for a robotics device. His dream was realised as the result of a chance meeting with fellow American Joseph Engelberger at a cocktail party in 1956.
We were chewing the fat and he [Devol] started telling me about a patent he had called Programmed Article Transfer, and I said: It sounds like a robot. I happened to say I was at Columbia University some years after Isaac Asimov and that I was a robotics enthusiast. I always joke and say that, even soberly, the morning after the cocktail party it still sounded like a good idea, reminisced Engelberger in our recent interview with him.
Devols design was for a mechanical arm, but with a twist, recalled Engelberger. It imagined technology that would let you program a tool effectively. Instead of saying, I have a machine that makes this part, period, it asked what the people in the factories were doing taking from here and putting to there. In a stylised world like a factory, you can take a machine, lead it around and it repeats what you taught it, said Engelberger.
Devols design was brought to life using a series of transistors, big magnetic memory and servo drives which, in his own words, used World War II technology. Engelberger would later form a company called Unimation (Universal Automation) to market the programmable arm. He struck gold in the 1960s, when General Motors licensed the arm to run a die-casting machine.
A die-casting machine is the device that manufactures individual car parts by pouring hot, melted aluminium into a mould. When the die opens up, it reveals a perfectly moulded part, but its still hot. The Unimates job was to remove the part, quench it in water and put it into a press. That was the first job that any industrial robot performed, said Engelberger.
This Feature appeared in the June, 2002 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine