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History of Robots

History of Robots

Robots have always been a subject of intrigue. The following article sheds light on the history of these automated machines, which hold the power to transform human lives.
Sonal Panse
Robots have long been part of the public imagination. They have been portrayed in movies - notably, in Metropolis, the Star Wars series, Star Trek, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Blade Runner and Silent Running - and have found mention in science-fiction literature. The word 'Robot', derived from the Czech work 'Robota' (compulsory labor), was in fact first mentioned in the 1920 Czech play "R.U.R" by Karel Capek; in the play, robots used in war turn against their human masters and take over the world. Another writer who popularized them was Isaac Asimov, who wrote a collection of short stories and first used the term 'Robotics'. Asimov also wrote the 'Three Laws of Robotics', which defined the interaction rules between humans and bots.


According to the Webster dictionary, a robot is "An automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans, or a machine in the form of a human." So, it is a programmed, autonomous device, made up of electrical or mechanical units, that can move around and do a variety of tasks in place of humans.

History and Timeline

Although we think of robots as a modern invention, they can be traced back to ancient Greece when, in 250 B.C., the Alexandrian inventor Ctesibius, built water clocks that had movable figures. During the Italian Renaissance in 1495, Leonardo da Vinci designed mechanical movable armored knights. In 1738, Jacques de Vaucanson of Grenoble, France, built three automata - one that could play a flute, a second that could play a flute as well as a drum, and a duck that could quack, flap its wings, and eat. In 1773, the Swiss clock-maker, Pierre Jaquet-Droz, and his son, Henry Louis Jaquet-Droz, began making automata for the European royalty - they created figures that could write, draw, and play music.

In the nineteenth century, the science of robotics was boosted with the development of early computer technology - Joseph Jacquard's punch card-operated loom machines, Charles Babbage's Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, George Boole's Boolean Algebra - and Nikola Tesla's radio-controlled vehicles. Some well-known bots from this period were Friedrich Kaufman's Trumpeter (1810), John Brainerd's Steam Man (1865), Frank Reade Jr.'s Electric Man (1885), and Dr. Archibald Campion's Boilerplate (1893).

With the invention of the transistor and integrated circuits, there was more progress. W.Grey Walter, in 1948-1949, created the turtle robots, Elsie and Elmer, and in 1951, Raymond Goertz created a teleoperated arm for the Atomic Energy Commission. The first programmable bot was created by George Devol in 1954 - he called it 'Universal Automation'. In 1961, General Motors installed a Unimate bot for die-casting, handling, and spot welding. Other companies followed suit and bots soon took over the tasks of industrial assembly line production.

The 1960s saw the development of robotics for medical purposes, specifically in prosthetic arms, like the Rancho Arm created at the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, California.

The notable bots of the 1970s, were the Russian-made, six-legged Variante Masha (1977), the OSU hexpod by McGhee of the Ohio State University (1977), the snakelike Oblix by Shigeo Hirose (1978), the Stanford Cart (1979), and the Selective Compliant Articulated Robot Arm (SCARA) by Hiroshi Makino of Yamanashi University (1979).

The 1980s seem to have been dominated by Japanese robotics companies. There were the microcomputer controlled and walkable WL-9DR (1980), WL-10R (1983), the music-playing WABOT II (1984), the walkable biped WL12RIII (1989) by Ichiro Kato of the Waseda University, Tokyo, the stair-climbing quadruped Titan II by Shigeo Hirose, the Biper-4 by Tokyo University's by Isao Shimoyama and Hirofumi Miura (1984), the walkable biped Waseda Hitachi Leg-11 or WHL-11 (1985) by Hitachi Ltd., the quadruped Collie I by Tokyo University's H Miura (1985), the six-legged Melwalk3 from Namiki Tsukuba Science City (1985), the toy Omnibot 2000 by the Tomy Kyogo Company Inc (1985), and the Aquarobot (1989 ) from the Japanese Transport Ministry's Robotics Laboratory. Some other bots from this period were the programmable RB5X (1985) and the quadruped Attila II (1989) by the General Robotics Corp. and MIT's Genghis (1989).

The 1990s saw the advent of the 'explorer' robots. They went where no man went before - or found it too inconvenient or risky to venture forth. These included Carnegie-Mellon University's Dante (1993) and Dante II (1994), which explored Mt. Erebrus in Antarctica and Mt. Spurr in Alaska, respectively. Then there was NASA's robotic rover Pathfinder that blazed a path all the way to Mars in 1997 and sent back photographic data. There was also development on the medical frontier with the Robodoc (1990) that performed a canine hip-replacement surgery and the Edinburg Modular Arm System or EMAS (1998) bionic arm. Honda created the autonomous bipedal humanoid walking bots P2 (1996) and P3 (1997). MIT's David Barrett created a robotic fish 'RoboTuna' in 1996 and Mitsubishi followed suit in 1999. Next on the agenda were robotic pets - FURBY (1998) by Tiger Electronics and Sony's Aiko dog (1999).

In the 2000s, we have robots that can interact with humans to quite an amazing degree - recognize voices, faces, express emotions through speech, walk without trouble on a variety of surfaces, perform household chores, perform hospital chores, perform delicate surgeries, and much more.