Retrotechtacular: The Original Robot Arm

Retrotechtacular: The Original Robot Arm

Do you know the name [George Devol]? Probably not. In 1961 he received a patent for “Programmed Article Transfer.” We’d call his invention the first robot arm, and its name was the Unimate. Unlike some inventors, this wasn’t some unrealized dream. [Devol’s] arm went to work in New Jersey at a GM plant. The 4,000 pound arm cost $25,000 and stacked hot metal parts. With tubes and hydraulics, we imagine it was a lot of work to keep it working. On the other hand, about 450 of the arms eventually went to work somewhere.

The Unimate became a celebrity with an appearance in at least one newsreel — see below — and the Johnny Carson show. Predictably, the robot in the newsreel was pouring drinks.

The robot actually dated back to 1954, although the patent didn’t grant until 1961. By 1969, GM was even using Unimate to do spot welding and could build 110 cars per hour. At the time this was claimed to be double the rate any other car factory could manage.

The newsreel mentions that the Unimate had memory onboard, and from what we can tell it did use a drum memory system of some kind. We also caught a glimpse of the Unimate making sinks and even (blush) reproducing.

If you watch a bit of that video, you’ll learn that we were supposed to have one of these in our home by the year 2000. Huh. We only wish it had asked, “Would you like some toast?” By the end, though, there was still alcohol involved.

Westinghouse bought Unimate back in 1984. Why not? They always did like robots. We still don’t have robot toasters from Westinghouse or anyone else, for that matter. But they weren’t the first to have an off prediction about the future.