Evidence suggests that the earliest human-like mechanized forms can be dated back to Ancient Greece, while concepts of artificial beings have been in the works dating back to the 19th century. However, in spite of this, the evolution of robots did not really begin properly until the 1950s when George Devol invented a robot that was programmable and digitally operated.
It was that robot that laid the foundations for the robotic industry we have today.
The Early Years
Ctesibius was an ancient Greek engineer. And in about 270 BC, he produced water clocks that contained loose figures or automatons. Then we have Archytas of Tarentum, a Greek mathematician who develops a steam-propelled mechanical bird, named “The Pigeon”. And in 10-70 AD, Hero of Alexandria came up with several innovations in the automaton field, including one that, it is alleged, could actually speak.
On to Ancient China, and we find an account, penned in the 3rd century BC, about an automaton. The account tells of King Mu Zhou being presented with a mechanical figure, life-sized, by an artificer called Yan Shi.
Theory and Science Fiction
Visionaries and writers have long imagined a world where robots are a part of our lives. Mary Shelly penned “Frankenstein” in 1818, a story about a lifeform that is brought to life by Dr Frankenstein, a very mad but very brilliant writer.
100 years on, and a Czech writer called Karel Capek came up with the term, “robot” when he wrote a play called “Rossum’s Universal Robots” or R.U.R, in 1921. The plot of the play was a simple one, yet quite terrifying — the main character built a robot which then went on to kill.
In 1927, a film called “Metropolis” was released, written by Fritz Lang and featuring the Maschinenmensch or Machine Man, which was a humanoid robot, the very first time one had ever been depicted on film.
Isaac Asimov, a futurist and sci-fi writer, first coined the term “Robotics” in 1941, when he was describing robot technology. He predicted that a very powerful industry of robots would rise in the future. He also penned a story called “Runaround”, about a robot and the three laws of robotics. The story was centered on the ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence.
And in 1948, “Cybernetics” was published by Norbert Wiener, forming the basis of something called practical robotics which is basically AI research around the principles of cybernetics.
The First Robots
William Grey Walter, a pioneer in British robotics, was responsible for inventing Elsie and Elmer. These two robots were developed in 1948, and used basic electronics to mimic human-like behavior. These were tortoise-like and were programmed to head to their charging stations when their power started running down.
In 1954 we got the Unimate. Developed by George Devol, this was the first programmable and digitally operated robot. This was followed in 1956 by Devol forming the first robotics company in the world with his business partner, Joseph Engleberger. And in 1961, Unimate was put to work in a General Motors automotive factory in New Jersey.
We now see both industrial and commercial robots in widespread use. They can perform some jobs with far more reliability and accuracy than humans and at a far cheaper cost. They tend to be used for repetitive, time-consuming, jobs, and those tasks that are far too dangerous or dirty and pose a risk to human life.
Their widest spread uses are in manufacturing, packing, assembly, space and earth exploration, weaponry, surgery, laboratory research, as well as mass production of industrial and consumer goods.