The Father Of Modern Robotics: George Devol

Robots have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years. Da Vinci drew up plans for one amongst his many fantastical inventions, and Nikola Tesla designed the first radio-controlled contraption. One day, robots will take our jobs — at least the ones that are able to be automated — and it was a robot called Unimate back in 1956 that first started this trend. The Unimate was one of the creations of inventor and serial entrepreneur George Devol — a man who thought the world was ready for something new.

Image via RIA

From a young age, Devol was interested in all things mechanical, showing curiosity towards everything from boats to planes to any sort of engine. Unlike many early innovators in the computing world, Devol didn’t have much of a scholarly interest in maths or science. He was more concerned with how things worked, how they didn’t and how they could possibly work better. Towards this end he read everything he could about mechanical devices, besides building and working with as many interesting devices as he could manage.

The term ‘robot’ wasn’t coined until 1920, when it was invented for the play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The now ubiquitous term comes from the Czech word ‘robota’, which literally translates to ‘serf labor’, but can also be used to mean hard work or drudgery. George Devol, who would eventually change the world of robotics, was only nine years old when this term first appeared. The word ‘robotics’ as it is now used to describe the field of study was not coined until much later in 1942, for Azimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics — but that’s another story.

A Serial Entrepreneur

Upon his high school graduation, Devol decided to skip college, and started his own business. He had always been interested in the use of vacuum tubes beyond their regular application in radios at the time, and starting his company, United Cinephone, gave him the opportunity to put his ideas into use. While he initially started developing a better system for the film industry’s newly realised ‘talkies’ to record sound, he shelved this idea after realising he was up against some stiff competition. He continued to work with photocells and vacuum tubes, however, and the next place he put them to use was in the creation of an automatic door.

The door, which used photoelectric switches, was licenced to Yale & Towne, who produced the Phantom Doorman out of his creation. The Phantom Doorman was the first of its kind, but this technology is ubiquitous today, appearing everywhere from supermarkets to most office buildings. The door was just one product that Devol invented in order to sell United Cinephone’s photoelectric switches, however.

Other products made directly by the company included an early barcode, an efficient lighting system for garment factories called Orthoplane lighting and optical registration controls for color offset printing presses. Automation was a key factor in many of Devol’s early inventions, and his company installed automated photoelectric counters at the New York World’s Fair, which were used to count the number of customers who entered the fairgrounds.

The beginning of World War II put a bit of a dent in Devol’s inventing spree. He had just applied for a patent on proximity controls for use in laundry press machines, a device that would automatically open and close laundry presses when workers approached them. Once war was declared, the patent office advised him that his patent application would be put on hold for the duration of the war. This wasn’t enough to stop him, and he split with his company, United Cinephone, in order to bring his ideas on radar technology to electronics company Sperry Gyroscope. He ended up at Sperry as manager of the Special Projects Department, which was in charge of developing radar devices. Later in the war, he approached Auto Ordinance Corporation, producers of Thompson submachine guns. He sold them on his concept of radar counter-measures, convincing them that this technology would become increasingly important in the field of defense.

In 1943, under the Auto Ordinance Corporation, he organised General Electronics Industries, a company which produced counter-radar devices until the end of the war. In those short years, General Electronics became one of the largest producers of radar and radar counter-measure equipment for the US Armed Forces. Its counter-measure systems were even aboard allied planes on D-Day.

The Answer To A Different Problem

Devol ultimately left Auto Ordinance over a difference of opinions, and joined up with RCA. He decided that it wasn’t for him, however, and he left RCA as well a short time after. In 1946 he was back to applying for patents, this time on a magnetic recording system for controlling machines — technology that would later lead to his development of the Unimate. This device was licensed to Remington Rand, where he then became manager of the magnetics department. Although he would go on to produce the first digitally controlled robot, that wasn’t what he was thinking about at the time. Instead, his work at Remington Rand focussed on developing his magnetic recording system for business data applications — which it eventually proved to be less than ideal for. The repurposed invention wound up being redeveloped as a machine control — technology which would end up forming the vital “brains” of the Unimate robot.

Many of Devol’s previous inventions had centred around the idea of automation — many of the devices that used his photoelectric sensors, for example, were created to perform a process when someone entered the machine’s proximity. It was from this concept of introducing automation into factories that the concept of the Unimate was born, and he applied for the patent in 1954. The core concept was something called ‘Universal Automation’ or ‘Unimation’, from which the product’s name of Unimate was eventually derived.

“The present invention makes available for the first time a more or less general purpose machine that has universal application to a vast diversity of applications where cyclic digital control is desired,” Devol wrote in his application for the Unimate’s patent, and in doing so he unwittingly provided the foundation for the formation of the modern robotics industry.

Thanks to the appearance of humanoid robots in fiction and film such as Azimov’s I, Robot, those who set out to invent functional, real life robots often attempted to make it in humanoid form — something that roboticists still struggle with today. Unlike other conceptual robots being built at the time, the Unimate robotic arm wasn’t developed as an answer to robotics, but rather as an answer to the concept of automation.

The New Production Line

The Unimate was the first industrial robot, and the first digitally operated and programmable robots. Previous robots had mainly been operated using analogue electronics until this point. Although robot arms such as the Unimate have changed the way that manufacturing industries function, Devol initially struggled to find a company willing to give him the financial backing to develop it. Eventually he partnered with Joseph F. Engelberger, who was the chief of engineering at Manning, Maxwell and Moore’s aircraft products deal.

Striking up a deal with Engelberger, Devol agreed to licence his patent to the company — although this deal came at the same time as Manning, Maxwell and Moore was bought out by Dresser Industries, and the new parent company didn’t see the need for its aircraft division, or the industrial robot patent licences. Engelberger eventually found a backer for the division in Consolidated Diesel Electronic, which finally put up the financing for the Unimate under a division called Unimation Incorporated.

The development of the Unimate required a number of new technologies, and a huge amount of custom parts that had to be designed and machined in house. By all accounts it was a massive undertaking, but finally they sold their first Unimate to General Motors in 1960 and it was delivered in 1961. This first machine was used for spot welding and handling die casts, able to lift hot pieces of metal from the machine and stack them.

The technology soon spread, with companies such as Chrysler, Ford and Fiat all purchasing Unimates for their own factories. It was in 1966 that full scale production of the Unimate began, with the materials handling robot followed by robots designed for welding and other tasks needed in factory processes. The Unimate’s successors continue to keep huge factories and industries running, and are becoming more advanced than ever before.

The Father Of Robotics

Over the course of his lifetime, Devol held over 40 patents, never ceasing in his continuing quest to revolutionise the way we interact with the world. His Unimate design went on to be used on production lines everywhere, and led to the automation of thousands of dirty, dangerous and generally undesirable jobs. He didn’t settle even after creating his most iconic invention either, going on to develop multiple types of sensors for robots, coaxial connectors and even pioneering the field of micro robotics.

While he may not be a household name, Devol is still well known within the robotics community. Bob Malone recalls an anecdote from the 1997 Automation Hall of Fame ceremony, where an educational robot called Sico rolled up to Devol to say “Father, so good to see you!”

All images via Wikimedia Commons

These Are Your Numbers is a new Lifehacker series where we profile great minds that have made significant contributions to robotics and computing.

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