Revolutionizing manufacturing the world over, the Unimate was the very first industrial robot. Conceived from a design for a mechanical arm patented in 1954 (granted in 1961) by American inventor George Devol, the Unimate was developed as a result of the foresight and business acumen of Joseph Engelberger - the Father of Robotics.
At a cocktail party in 1956, Joseph Engelberger met inventor George Devol and the two got to talking about George’s latest invention - his Programmed Article Transfer device. “Sounds like a robot to me,” exclaimed Engelberger, who had a deep fascination with robots as a result of his love for writer Isaac Asimov’s science fiction stories.
In 1957, Engelberger, who at the time was director of Consolidated Controls Corp. (Condec subsidiary) located in Bethel, Connecticut, convinced Condec’s CEO to finance the development of Devol’s invention. After almost two years in development, Engelberger and Devol produced a prototype - the Unimate #001.
By 1961, the Unimate 1900 series became the first mass produced robotic arm for factory automation.
Mindful of the uphill battle he would face from manufacturers, and motivated by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics that relate a “first do no harm” philosophy similar to the Hippocratic Oath, Engelberger focused on employing the robots in tasks harmful to humans. His strategy worked and in 1959 the 2,700 pound Unimate #001 prototype was installed on an assembly line for the first time at a General Motors diecasting plant in Trenton, New Jersey. By 1961, the Unimate 1900 series became the first mass produced robotic arm for factory automation. In a very short period of time, approximately 450 Unimate robotic arms were employed in diecasting.
In 1961 Engelberger established Unimation, Inc., a Condec Corp. company in Danbury, Connecticut, to develop the business in the newly established robotics industry he created. That same year, Engelberger introduced the Unimate 1900 to the public at a trade show at Chicago’s Cow Palace. In 1966, television audiences around the world got to see the robot for the first time as Johnny Carson welcomed the Unimate on the Tonight Show. In this live broadcast from NBC Studios in New York City, Engelberger had the robot perform several tricks to wow viewers, including knocking a golf ball into a cup, pouring a beer, and conducting the Tonight Show band.
By 1966 Engelberger sought to broaden the customer base outside of the United States. He licensed Nokia of Finland to manufacture the robots in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. After an invitation to speak to 400 Japanese executives in Tokyo who were interested in robotics for manufacturing, Engelberger signed a licensing agreement in 1969 with Kawasaki Heavy Industries (now Kawasaki Robotics) to manufacture and market the Unimate robots for the Asian market.
On this side of the pond, General Motors had jumped ahead of its competition to become the most automated automotive plant in the world. In 1969, it rebuilt its Lordstown, Ohio plant installing Unimate spot welding robots. Capable of production speed never before achieved, the robots built 110 cars per hour - more than double the rate of any automotive plant in existence at the time! With the help of the Unimate, GM revolutionized the automotive industry. The Europeans were quick to follow suit and companies like BMW, Volvo, Mercedes Benz, British Leyland, and Fiat installed Unimate robotic arms to perform jobs that were unpleasant and dangerous for humans, a robot benefit very important to Engelberger.
From a two-dimensional drawing to an industrial and societal revolution, the Unimate robot remains one of the most significant contributions in the past one hundred years not only to manufacturing but to civilization. It has left a living legacy in an industry to which it gave birth. As a result of the Unimate, the field of robotics continues to expand beyond manufacturing to virtually every facet of human life and service.