It was only a little more than 50 years ago that the word “robot” was relegated to science fiction novels and B-movies. Educational programs for robotics and robotic engineers didn’t exist. Then came a young entrepreneur with a vision and a mission: To convince the world that robots were the future. A physicist and engineer, he founded the world’s first robotics company, Unimation; he traveled the world, lecturing and educating; authored textbooks that became standards in robotics. He cajoled, inspired, and educated, and finally was heard. He is rightfully known as the Father of Robotics, Joseph F. Engelberger.
“Did you see that? What a crazy machine!” Johnny Carson has just watched a robot, the first he and his audience have ever seen—swing a golf club to putt a hole-in-one. Awed and mystified, the audience could be heard gasping. Some screamed. It’s the robot’s 1963 television debut on the Tonight Show Starring Johnnie Carson. The two-ton Unimate, the first industrial robot, was shipped from the small Animation plant in Danbury, Connecticut where it was created, to NBC studios in Burbank, California along with Joseph Engelberger, its handler, and an engineer to program it. Live on air, Engelberger explained how “something called a remote control” worked, and then used it to command the Unimate to conduct the band. Later, the robot opened and poured a beer. The next day the media was full of recounts of the appearance, but with no mention of its practical applications.
This was Engelberger’s dilemma: How to change the perception of the robot from a novelty act into a practical, integral part of all aspects of life from healthcare to transportation to manufacturing. Robots would make factory workers safer, production faster, product quality better, and would expand the capabilities of any application. Determined, he tirelessly demonstrated his Unimate at conventions, trade shows, and on television shows. He wrote articles and books. He met with kings, presidents, and heads of state. He approached company CEOs and shop workers on the floor. He addressed Congress on the value of automation in space exploration, and encouraged their investment. He talked to anyone who would listen. With his gregarious personality, sharp wit, and signature red bow tie, he was the standard bearer for the robot cause. And, as we all know, he prevailed.
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Joseph Engelberger is the embodiment of that most venerated national ethos, The American Dream. He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1925, the son of German immigrants. His father played cello on cruise ships and was rarely home, but later become a bricklayer to better support his wife and two sons.
In 1941, when Engelberger was only 16, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, crippling the U.S. fleet. The United States entered World War II, and its war machine shifted into high gear. Engelberger finished high school and was determined to enlist in the Navy. Knowing that his color-blindness would keep him from passing the physical, his characteristic resourcefulness prevailed. “I cheated! I asked someone who’d taken the [color] test and memorized the answers,” he says with real glee. And so, he began serving his country.
Military service gave Engelberger the most important factor for his success—an excellent education. He was selected for a special program for promising students to study physics at Columbia University. Attending the School of Engineering, he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946, and then his master’s degree in physics and electrical engineering in 1949. Since then, recognition for his contributions has lead to honorary doctorates from many institutions, including Trinity College and Carnegie Mellon University.
According to the late George Munson, an engineer on Engelberger’s six-man team that created the Unimate, his genius was undeniable. At one point, when market circumstances created uncertainty for the company and crew, Munson recalls, “Joe sought ways to keep the business going and his workforce together. So he went to a Barnes & Noble bookstore, bought five books on finance and sat down and read them all. In his words, ‘I got my MBA all in one weekend.’ And he could do it!”
WORLD WAR II AND MODERN ROBOTICS
It can be said that the roots of modern robotics are in the technologies created during WWII and post-war development. Automatic controls and servo mechanisms were needed to allow precise positioning and manipulation of machine parts in factories. Nuclear developments brought about the need for auto controls. (Fortuitously, Engelberger ’s partner in forming Unimation, George Devol, had spent years before and during the war developing just such devices, along with optic sensors and radar.)
With his solid background in engineering and physics, Engelberger joined Bridgeport, Connecticut-based Manning, Maxwell, and Moore, Inc. (MM&M) as an engineer in 1946. The company specialized in industrial controls, gauges, and valves. Although young and inexperienced, Engelberger impressed MM&M executives, who charged him with starting up their Aircraft Products Division. He landed some lucrative military contracts for jet engine controls and the division flourished. While at MM&M, Engelberger interviewed and hired some of the talented young engineers who would be by his side throughout his career, working at Unimation and even ventures beyond.
As the war wound down, those military contracts ended. Engelberger left MM&M to form his own company, Consolidated Controls Corporation (CCC) in Danbury, Connecticut. It was in this small, unassuming workshop that the first industrial robot would later be made, revolutionizing manufacturing around the world.
THE FIRST SPARK
The industrial robot’s first spark ignited in 1957, when Engelberger attended a cocktail party where he met another legend in the nascent robotics field, George C. Devol. Their meeting was serendipitous, but also just plain lucky, since, as the shy Devol said, “I was probably hiding behind a plant. I hated parties.” The two struck up a conversation, and Engelberger was immediately intrigued. Devol was a bonafide genius who had circumvented college to start his first company at the age of 20, based on his own recording technique using photocells. He held several patents by then, from optic sensors to high-speed printing. He had recently patented his “teachable machine,” which he called Programmable Article Transfer. Engelberger immediately grasped the potential for factory assembly lines: “I knew it was a great idea, because the next morning, when I woke up (a little hung over I have to say), it was still a great idea!”
The two formed a synergistic alliance: Devol had a patented, viable product and Engelberger had the manufacturing plant and crew of competent engineers. Financing was the next hurdle to jump, and the partners began a frantic search. Among the potential investors was Consolidated Diesel Electric Corporation (Condec). Norm Schafler, Condec’s president, saw their vision and provided the necessary funds. In 1958 they set up shop in the former CCC facility in Danbury. Devol’s wife, Evelyn, coined the word “Unimation” by combining “universal” and “automation.” The world’s first robotics company, Unimation, was born, with Joseph Engelberger as its charismatic president.
AND ALL THAT MADE IT TICK
The team that created the Unimate had some seemingly insurmountable barriers. According to a project engineer, George Munson: “We were to soon learn that the trailing technologies were everything that went into such a device: digital control, memory, and muscle. Thus, our task was not only to develop the concept, but to design and build all that made it tick! The engineering design tasks we were faced with included the development of:
- A digitally controlled system based on the binary numbering system (remember, this was 1956!);
- A nonvolatile solid-state memory system (which didn’t exist);
- Shaft position digital encoders, preferably, optical high-speed performance (which also, as it turned out, didn’t exist);
- A custom-designed high-performance digital servo control system capable
of dynamic control with a wide range of payloads (e.g., a few pounds to a couple of hundred pounds at varying torques);
- High-performance hydraulic servo valves (thank goodness for the military);
- Self-contained electrical and hydraulic power supplies;
- An attractive envelope and myriad other details.
We developed a ferroresonant sensor, the basis for a self-styled memory system, patented as “Dynastat.” We also needed an optical shaft position encoder to provide the necessary position feedback to close the loop between the robot arm’s actual position and its command positions. By 1965 we had perfected an optical Gray code encoder we called “Spirodisk.”
General Motors bought the first Unimate in1961, and Engelberger got his opportunity to put his innovation to the test at GM’s diecasting plant in Trenton, NJ. Initially, there was concern over how the die cast machine operators would react to this “man replacement.” They need not have worried since the worker’s consensus was that the robot was a curiosity destined to fail. However, the robot proved irreplaceable, and no other industry encouraged the proliferation of the industrial robot like diecasting. Eventually some 450 Unimates were employed in diecasting. Spot welding automobile bodies came along in the late 1960s, and inherently required all of the attributes the robot had to offer.
Unimation thrived and became the largest robotics company in the world, with branches in many countries. Its influence cannot be overstated. Writing in The New Scientist in 1986, Douglas Hall of Britain’s Hall Automation Company stated, “The development of robots in Britain really began in February, 1966 when I read an article in The New Scientist called ‘The New Factory Worker.’ The article was written by Joseph Engelberger, the founder of an American company called Unimation (now the world’s biggest robotics company).”
Interestingly, the word robotics was coined by one of Engelberger’s fellow Columbia University alumnus, Isaac Asimov. Engelberger received his master’s in physics in 1949 and Asimov received his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1948. Engelberger found Asimov’s books about robots inspiring. In his forward to Engelberger’s book, Robotics in Practice, Asimov includes his Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Another legendary name in robotics, Victor Scheinman, became part of the Unimation story in 1977, when he sold the design for his robotic Stanford arm to Unimation and became the managing director of Unimation’s West Coast division from 1977 to 1980. Scheinman had developed the all-electric, 6-axis Stanford arm while attending Stanford University and had founded Vicarm, Inc. to develop and market it. While with Unimation, he developed the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly, or PUMA, specifically for General Motors. The PUMA is still a standard in manufacturing. With a new West Coast division to set up in California, Engelberger’s daughter, Gay, became the office manager there, overseeing day-to-day operations and learning about the family business. She remained a major part of the business through several subsequent Engelberger robotic ventures, proving to be the right combination of marketing savvy and organizational skills.
THE NEXT FOCUS
For several years, as the first and largest robotic company in the world, Unimation was the industry leader. But serious competition arose from other companies and the furiously booming robotics industry in Japan. In 1982, Westinghouse acquired Unimation, and Engelberger stayed on as president. Westinghouse then sold Unimation to Stäubli SA of Switzerland in 1988.
In 1984, Engelberger turned his focus to another area where he felt robots should be working, human services, health care, and elder care. He founded Transitions Research Corporation (TRC), which later became HelpMate Robotics, Inc. He set up shop in the same Danbury facility where the Unimate had been born. The HelpMate courier robot was soon seen in the corridors at Danbury Hospital, humming along quietly, autonomously delivering materials from station to station, even able to call elevators for itself to move between floors. Now common in dozens of hospitals the world over, that first robot was a popular attraction when first put into service, with curious visitors following it around. Gay Engelberger remembers trials and programming, “We had to put it through its paces. Every possible scenario, whatever it might encounter – elevators, people, equipment, you name it. It had to be programmed to handle any possibility, so we spent weeks, running around the hospital setting up scenarios and programming.” It’s an idea that became a reality, and another part of the Engelberger legacy.
THE JOSEPH F. ENGELBERGER AWARD
Among the almost countless awards, plaudits, and honors Engelberger has received, one stands out, as it bears his name. Given annually by the Robotics Industries Association, it is described by the association: “The Engelberger Robotics Award is the world’s most prestigious robotics honor. The awards are presented to individuals for excellence in technology development, application, education, and leadership in the robotics industry. Each winner receives a $5,000 honorarium and commemorative medallion with the inscription, ‘Contributing to the advancement of the science of robotics in the service of mankind.’ The Awards recognize outstanding individuals from all over the world. Since the award’s inception in 1977, they have been presented to 116 robotics leaders from 17 different nations.”
This year, the awards ceremony took place at the Automate 2015 Show and Conference. The awards were presented by Victor Scheinman, sporting an enormous red bow tie, a tribute to his friend and colleague, Engelberger, who is known for his signature bow tie. Scheinman visited his old friend in Engelberger’s Connecticut home recently, still close after all the years.
In 1997, Japan recognized Engelberger’s contribution, awarding him that nation’s highest honor, the Japan Prize, citing his “Establishment of the robot industry and creation of a techno-global paradigm. Dr. Engelberger foresaw from the beginning that machines called robots would markedly improve productivity and was a key person in their development and introduction for practical purposes.” Ever on a mission, in his acceptance speech Engelberger stated, “As a cause célèbre, I reach out internationally for sponsors of the final development of a robot caregiver … adding quality to the twilight years of our seniors.” His most recent innovation, called Isaac (named for Isaac Asimov), is a service robot designed to help the elderly and disabled. Years ahead of its time, it could respond to voice commands. The promotional video demonstrates Isaac lifting a person in bed into a sitting position and then into a standing position. It then provides two “arms” to stabilize the person while walking. It was designed to fetch, give reminders, prepare meals, and myriad other tasks.
When asked what his fondest memories are, Engelberger will tell you, “I never look back. I’m always thinking about the future. That’s the way an inventor’s mind works. You’re too busy thinking about the next thing. You should always look to the future. It’s what matters.” And at the age of 90, his is advice worth taking.