Robots in history


There’s been a long-term human interest or fascination building machines that look and act like we do. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, people were building machines that they called Automata, and some examples of them are shown here. Essentially, they’re very ingenious, clock-work machines filled with gears and cams and so on.

The example the writer draftsman shown here on the right hand side, was able to perform very, very elaborate drawings. An example here, a drawing of a sheep is shown. An earlier and very famous example of machines of this class is the digesting duck and once again it is a clock-work machine. What you’d do with this duck is you would feed it with small pellets which it would appear to eat and they would pass through the digestive tracts of the duck and be eventually excreted.

They’re able to build a machine that appeared to be life-like, it would eat and it would excrete. Two of the important functions of something that is alive. At that time, this was considered quite wonderful, an example of technological progress, how they were able to build machines that were very, very life-like. Of course by today’s standards, it looks very, very primitive but at that time, it was an amazing achievement.

Now, the gentleman who designed this, Vaucanson, went on to do some more useful things. He got involved in automating the process of silk weaving. The technology of weaving was advanced further by Jacquard and he introduced the innovation of controlling the weave pattern by means of a series of punched wooden cards. So, this was a form of automated machine and it was programmable. The pattern that came out depended on the patterns of holes punched in those wooden cards.

The notion of punch card control was picked up by Charles Babbage, when he was conceiving a mechanical computing engine in the late 1800s. At that time he didn't have the technology to actually build this machine but he introduced the really important notion of a general-purpose computing engine and the computation that it performed is dictated by a program. In his case, input on punched cards.

The ideas embodied in this machine influenced later electronic computing devices. For an instance, the ENIAC Computer that was built during World War II and from that machine, we can trace a lineage to the computers we use every day, in our laptops and in our mobile phones, and computers of course, are a critical component of robot systems that we build today. We can perhaps think of a robot as a computer that can do things to the physical world.

The other really important innovation that led to robotics as we know them today is this work that was done after World War II at the Argonne National Laboratory in the United States. In there, they were faced by a problem of assembling nuclear weapons. This required them to handle, to manipulate pieces of material that were radioactive. This was a task that couldn't be undertaken by human beings because it would injure or kill the people who did that work. We needed to have machines to handle that material instead but the problem was that we need a lot of skill and intelligence in order to manipulate this radioactive material, so, they came up with a concept called teleoperation.

The people in white coats are sitting with what are called the master manipulator arms so they would grab those arms with their hands and they would move them. The arms over here are referred to as the slave arms. They move in such a way as to mimic the motion of the master arm. So, the people who were doing the assembly work and controlling the master arms, the slave arms are in a remote room performing work on the radioactive material. Video of what’s going on in the radioactive room is transmitted back to the people doing the work with the master arm so they can see what’s happening on a TV monitor. They move the master arms, the slave arms move in synchronism and perform the task remotely. This is a technique called teleoperation. It’s not really robotic. In some ways, you can think of it as a very-sophisticated, remote-controlled technology. It was really important to achieve this specific task at the Argonne National Laboratory.

This technology is an important precursor to modern manufacturing robots. What we do is we cut the wire between the master arm and the slave arm and instead of the master arm sending the commands to the slave arm, we put a computer there instead. So, the computer is sending commands to the slave arm which is going to move in accordance to the signals coming out of the computer. Of course, the computer is an infinitely reprogrammable device so therefore we can make the slave arm do anything that we like at all and now, there are no longer any human beings involved. We've created a robot.

And perhaps the person that this idea first occurred to is George Devol, gentleman shown here, prolific American inventor who died only recently. He had the idea of creating what he called universal automation which was contracted to Unimation. That was the name of the company that he founded in 1956 with Joseph Engelberger. They founded the company to produce industrial robots that would eventually go to work in general motors plants. The first of their robots which was installed in 1961 is shown here. What this robot did was to unload castings from a die-casting machine.

This was the start of the revolution of robots working in the manufacturing industry. Unimation, Inc. was the first company to build manufacturing robots. They were the pioneers. They’re no longer in business and today, there are many, many companies that build manufacturing robots, but most of them can trace their ancestry, their ideas or perhaps even the people back to this little company founded in 1956 in Connecticut in the United States.

Humans have long been fascinated by machines that mimic people and animals. These and several other technologies are the precursors of modern robots.

Professor Peter Corke

Professor of Robotic Vision at QUT and Director of the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision (ACRV). Peter is also a Fellow of the IEEE, a senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and on the editorial board of several robotics research journals.

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