100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Robots
Year of Invention: 1956

What Is It? A machine guided by automatic controls or programming that per-
forms complicated and often repetitive tasks.

Who Invented It? Joe Engelberger and George Devol (in Stamford, Connecticut)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Over 1.4 million robots are currently on the job in industrial plants, performing the most dangerous, backbreaking jobs 24 hours a day without complaint. Robots have already vastly multiplied the productivity of every human worker. Even though their full potential and importance lie in the future, robots have already redesigned and redefined the workplace and may soon do the same for the home.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

In a 1921 play, Czech playwright Karel Capek invented the word robot from the Czech word for “compulsory labor.” But the idea of robots—machines that do specific, preprogrammed work—started centuries earlier. In 1350, German clockmakers built a mechanical rooster on top of a Strasbourg, Germany, cathedral that automatically flapped its wings and crowed exactly at noon. In 1497 Italian clockmakers built two bell-ringing giants atop the clock tower in Piazza San Marco, Venice, Italy.

In 1942, American science writer Isaac Asimov created the word robotics in his collection of stories, I Robot. In the same year, the Johns Hopkins Engineering Department built “the Beast,” a four-legged walking vehicle. In 1943, Doug Ross at MIT created MPT (Machine Programming Tools), a language to instruct mill machines.

By 1945, the Ford Motor Company had converted its Detroit plants to use automatons, single-purpose machines built to do specific jobs along the assembly line. But automatons were still machines, not thinking robots.


How Were Robots Invented?

Initially, researchers thought that the great challenge in building a robot would be devising ways to mimic human motion. Hands and arms reach, grasp, pick up, turn over, and

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