From The Telegraph: Technology Obituaries: George Devol
George Devol, who died on August 11 aged 99, was inspired by the stories of the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov to design and produce the world’s first industrial robots.
Devol’s prototype mechanical arms became the forerunners of the robots that are now commonplace in manufacturing — notably on car assembly lines. But they had their genesis at a genteel cocktail party in 1954, when Devol buttonholed a fellow engineer, Joseph Engelberger, about his observation that “50 per cent of the people in factories are really putting and taking”.
It was a meeting of minds. Devol (he pronounced it De-vahl) had already applied ideas from his background in electrical engineering and machine controls to design a mechanical arm that could be programmed to repeat precise tasks, like grasping and lifting. While Devol had developed and patented the basic technology, Engelberger immediately appreciated its significance and the pair set up a company to produce a device which they called the Unimate.
The car manufacturing business was the first to try it out, with General Motors installing the first Unimate arm in 1962 on an assembly line in New Jersey, where it performed spot welding.
In the teeth of opposition from the trades unions, which feared that the technology would threaten jobs, Chrysler and Ford followed suit. By the mid-1960s, variations on Devol’s invention were being used to carry out difficult, repetitive, tedious or hazardous industrial tasks such as welding and spray-painting.
Not that Devol was the first to come up with the idea of harnessing machinery to do man’s bidding. In 1892 another American, Seward Babbitt, designed a motorised crane with a gripper to remove ingots from a furnace. The word “robot” — from the Czech word robota, which means drudgery or slave-like labour — appeared in 1921 in a play in London entitled Rossum’s Universal Robots.
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But Devol foresaw how robotics would flourish in the computer age, and how they could be programmed to communicate with each other to maximise performance.
George Charles Devol Jr was born on February 20 1912 in Louisville, Kentucky. As a child he liked to tinker with gadgets, but although he studied mechanics and electronics at school, he decided against going on to higher education. Instead he worked for various electronics companies before starting his own small business, United Cinephone, improving recording technology for films.
When that enterprise failed, Devol returned to inventing, and came up with sensors that automatically opened doors and laundry presses, and photoelectric detectors that automatically counted people going through the turnstiles at the New York World’s Fair. He also helped to develop a forerunner of the microwave oven, which cooked hot dogs and which was called the “Speedy Weenie”.
Devol and Engelberger later went their separate ways, with Devol running a robot leasing and consulting business from his home in Florida. Despite his best efforts, big names in American electronics like IBM were initially slow to embrace robotics. Only in the 1980s did breakthroughs in computer and microelectronics technology lead to their widespread use in industry.
Even then some waverers were not persuaded by Devol’s vision of an automated future. Indeed, some were actively put off by the prospect of increased reliance on machines, which they feared could lead to robots taking over the world. “George Devol was unable to restrain himself from spilling the whole dream out, which scared most businessmen off,” Engelberger explained. “I kept myself from talking about some of the things that have happened, which he envisioned.”
George Devol’s wife, Evelyn, died in 2003. Two sons and two daughters survive him.