Though understated at the time, few inventions have had as much impact as the industrial robot.
Industrial robots were invented by George Devol. A prolific innovator, Devol patented the “Unimate” – a term he coined – in 1954 to name his robot.
Robots have existed in science fiction for ages, often as machines in human form. The Wizard of Oz movie had the Tinman dancing and singing fifteen years before Devol’s real robot, and the movie is based on a book published in 1900.
Devol’s Unimate neither sung nor danced. It wasn’t especially attractive and, unlike the Tinman, didn’t want a heart. More to the point, factory owners did not want a worker with a heart, or a brain, or the need for sleep, breaks, vacations, weekends, health insurance or a pension. Unimate could grip, weld, tool, and spray.
Previously to the Unimate, Devol had built and sold several innovations including the self-opening door. Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt tried to steal credit despite that their door was launched two decades after Devol’s. The experience of dealing with IP thieves made Devol acutely aware of slimy business practices.
There was no prior art to Devol’s robot. Despite a long history in science fiction, nobody had submitted a patent for anything like it before.
In 1960, Devol sold the first robot to General Motors to lift and stack hot pipes. Chrysler, Ford, and Fiat followed.
Devol went on to spend the rest of his life improving industrial robots. Engelberger worked with Devol. Unimate thrived until the early 1980s when they failed to transition from hydraulic to electric motors.