15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics

Robotics has become an essential part of modern society. But, how did we get here?
Christopher McFadden

Robots have been around, in some form or other, since the ancient world. Early reports of wind-up automata existed in ancient Greece and Rome, and basic mechanical 'robots' were also designed and built in China. Even the polymath Leonardo Da Vinci presented an idea of a mechanical knight in the 15th century that is eerily similar to some of the humanoids that the modern world has become accustomed to. 

However, our modern concept of robots wouldn't appear until the Industrial Revolution, with the notion of the android (humanoid robot) making its first debut in 20th-century film and science fiction literature. 

Love them or fear them, robots have become an integral part of our world, making their way into medicine, the automotive industry, aerospace, and entertainment. According to recent reports, the robotics industry is expected to reach $158 billion by 2025, a massive leap from its 2020 valuee of $66.48 billion. Robots are here to stay. 

Today we're are going to celebrate the robotics engineers who have or continue to push the realms of robotics forward. 

1. Joseph Engelberger "The Father of Robotics"

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Silicon Valley Robotics

Their contribution to robotics: Who was the father of robotics? Joseph Endgelberger is widely credited for the birth of the industrial robotics industry. 

Other information: Engelberger was born in July 1925 and died in December 2015He was an American physicist, businessman, and engineer whose life's work would revolutionize manufacturing and society at large. 

In 1956 Engelberger met American engineer and inventor George D. Devol at a party. The two men began to discuss Isaac Asimov's philosophies on robotics. Devol also explained to Engelberger about his patent-pending Programmed Article Transfer device.

Joseph immediately identified it as a robot and conceived of its potential application to manufacturing — especially for hazardous tasks. This was the beginning of the fruitful collaboration between the two men that would build the automated production line as we know it.

By 1959 they had their first working prototype — Unimate #001 which was first adopted by General Motors at their production line at Trenton, New Jersey. 

By 1961 he had established Unimation Inc. to develop his new concept of industrial robots. One of the company's first robots, Unimate 1900, was shown off at a trade show in Chicago and also appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show in 1966. 

From this point on robots in manufacturing would change the industry and the world around us beyond all recognition. His work on robotics would earn him the nickname of the "Father of Robotics." 

2. George D. Devol: The inventor of the first programmable industrial robot

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Invent.org

Their contribution to robotics: George D. Devol conceived, designed, built, and patented the world's first programmable industrial robot. 

Patent information: US Patent No. 2,988,237

Other information: When Devol was 9 years old the word "robot" came into common parlance when Karel Capek's play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). became popular in 1921. This event would make a big impact on Devol who would design and build the world's first-ever industrial robot several decades later.

He would later meet and work closely with "Father of Robots" Joseph Engelberger where their mutual fascination with robots would change the world around us forever. 

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Worcester Polytechnic Institute

The result of this meeting of minds was the production of the first industrial robot, The Unimate, in 1959. This was later sold to General Motors and used for die-cast handling and spot welding. By 1966 Devol and Engelberger's robots went into full production and by 1975 their company, Unimation, finally made its first profit, after $5 million of investment. 

Devol died in 2011 at the age of 99. His inventions, including the first true industrial robot, Unimate, would lead to the fully automated production lines common to modern-day factories. 

3. Marvin Minsky was the pioneer of artificial intelligence

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Mardetanha/Wikimedia Commons

Their contribution to robotics: Marvin Minky is most famed for his pioneering work in the practice of the science of artificial intelligence. For his work, he won the 1969 A. M. Turing Award. This award is one of the most prized awards in computer science.

Patent information: Confocal scanning microscope

Other information: Marvin Minsky was born in August 1927 in New York City. After a stint in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, he enrolled at Harvard University to study physics, neurophysiology, and psychology.

He eventually graduated with an honors degree in maths in 1950. The following year he enrolled at Princeton and built the first neural network simulator. 

Minsky moved to MIT after returning to Harvard for a few years to explore his interest in computers as a means of understanding human thought. Here, he worked heavily with John McCarthy and the pair later founded the Artificial Intelligence Project.

This is now called the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory which is still to this day one of the preeminent research centers in the field of AI.

His work would help define the field of AI and laid the foundations for the modern explosion in the development of 'intelligent' robots. Minsky's work is still essential to modern robotics engineering

He died in January 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

4. Victor Scheinman invented the first electrically powered computer-controlled robotic arm

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: ArnoldReinhold/Wikimedia Commons

Their contribution to robotics: Victor Scheinman is widely known as the inventor of the world's first computer-controlled, electrically powered robotic arm — the so-called Stanford Arm.

This robot was a lightweight, multi programmable, and versatile device that has been widely adapted for use in industry from automobile assembly lines to other tasks.

Other information: Victor was born in December 1942 and conceived of his groundbreaking robotic arm in 1969 after studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

He later founded Vicarm Inc. in 1973 to further develop, build and commercialize his invention. His company was later sold to the seminal robotics company of the time: Unimation. 

Scheinman continued to work closely with Unimation to develop the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (PUMA for short). 

He later founded the robotics company Automatrix that built robots with built-in cameras and other sensors. He also developed the Robotworld system, which allowed robots to work in concert with one another

Victor died in September 2016 in Petrolia, California. 

5. Ichiro Kato built the world's first real android

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: aiws

Their contribution to robotics: Ichiro Kato of Waseda University applied his studies of medicine and humanoid robots to initiate the highly influential WABOT project in 1967. By 1972 this project had created the world's first full-scale humanoid 'intelligent' robot - WABOT-1.

WABOT-1 came complete with two arms, could walk on two legs, and used a pair of cameras to 'see'. 

Other information: Ichiro's WABOT project was to prove highly effective in the early development of humanoid robots. WABOT-1, when it was completed in 1972, became the world's first android (humanoid robot). 

WABOT-1's limb system allowed it to walk with its lower limbs and it could grip and move objects with its 'hands' that came complete with tactile sensors. It allowed WABOT-1 to measure distances and calculate directions to objects using its other visual and acoustic sensors.

And its conversation system allowed it to communicate with a person in Japanese, using an artificial mouth.

Kato died in 1994.

6. Takeo Kanade built the first direct-drive robotic arm

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Inamori Foundation/Wikimedia Commons

Their contribution to robotics: Takeo Kanade built the world's first direct-drive robotic arm in 1981. This arm contained all of its motors within the robot assembly itself and thus eliminated long transmissions.

Other information: Kanade, born October 1945 in Hyogo, Japan, is one of the world's foremost experts and researchers in computer vision and robotics. Computer vision is a field of research dealing with the investigation of how computers can understand digital images and videos in an attempt to replicate how humans see.

Kanade has served many government organizations, industrial, and university advisory boards, including the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) of the National Research Council, NASA's Advanced Technology Advisory Committee, PITAC Panel for Transforming Healthcare Panel, and the Advisory Board of Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

He has also received various awards and honors throughout his career including the Kyoto Prize for Information Sciences in 2016.

He is the Helen Whitaker Professor at Carnegie Mellon University with approximately 300 peer-reviewed academic publications and 20 patents.

7. Nobuyuki Okude popularised robots to a new generation

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Hiroyuki Obara/Wikimedia Commons

Their contribution to robotics: Although you may not know his name you will certainly know the products of his labor. Nobuyuki Okude is the man behind the highly influential and successful line of toys, then cartoons, commonly known as The Transformers

Although not 'real' robots like other entries on the list, The Transformers series of toys and cartoons popularized the concept of robots for the masses.

Nobuyuki was, at the time, the Executive Vice President of Takara (a Japanese Toy Manufacturer) who devised the concept of robots that turned into realistic cars that he termed Diaclone.

Takara soon teamed up with Hasbro to make toy, cartoon, and ultimately, robot history. This innovation would inspire an entirely new generation of children to further develop the concept and understanding of robotics.

Other information: Okude was born in 1944, and he joined Takara in the early 1970s. In the early 1980s, Hasbro approached Takara to combine their two most popular toys "Mircoman" and "Diaclone".

Nobuyuki noted the potential for a new line of toys based on their existing Diaclone car robot to develop the Transformers that the 1980s and 1990s' generation have come to adore. The designs for the original 28 figures were made by Kojin Ono, Takashi Matsuda, Hideaki Yoke, Hiroyuki Obara, and Satoshi Koizumi and the entire toy range was eventually sold to Hasbro.

8. David Barrett built "RoboTuna" in 1996 

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

Their contribution to robotics: David Barrett's RoboTuna was one of the first fully functional robotic fish ever built. It was designed to mimic the shape and motion of a real fish and was controlled by six servo motors.

It was devised to explore new propulsion systems for UAVs. 

Other information: In 1996 MIT doctoral student David Barrett designed and built the biomimetic robot, RoboTuna, for his Ph.D. thesis.

This robot was able to mimic a real bluefin tuna as it swims in the water. 

The idea of the project was to investigate the plausibility of designing and building a robotic submarine that could swim like a fish and, therefore, devise a superior form of propulsion for Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV's).

RoboTuna proved to be highly successful and showed that it was more maneuverable and used less energy than other robotic submarines.

9. Dr. Toshitada Doi was behind Sony's groundbreaking AIBO Robodog

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Sony

Their contribution to robotics: Toshitada Doi is widely credited as AIBO's creator. AIBO (Artificial Intelligence Robot) are or were a series of robotic pets designed and manufactured by Sony at the turn of the Millenium.

They unveiled their prototype in 1998 with the first consumer model released in around May of 1999. Sony released new models right up to around 2006 with most being of a dog-like design.

AIBO was capable of limited interaction with humans and, incredibly, sold out in less than 20 minutes when it was initially released for sale in Japan. 

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
AIBO prototypes. Source: Alex/Wikimedia Commons

This groundbreaking robot was officially recognized for its contributions to robotics when it was added to the Carnegie Mellon University Robot Hall of Fame in 2006.

Other information: Doi was born in 1943 who would train as an electrical engineer and would go on to play an important role in the digital audio revolution.

He received a degree in electrical engineering from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 1964, and a Ph.D. from Tohoku University in 1972.

Doi joined Sony in 1964 and immediately begin to produce the first digital audio project for the company. He would drive the development of the PCM adaptor and was a prominent member of the group that eventually designed and created the CD. 

During the 1990's he headed Sony's Digital Creatures Laboratory, which is where he was responsible for the AIBO — Sony's robotic dog. In 2003, Doi's team created the Qrio, a running humanoid robot.

10. Satoshi Shigemi is the man behind Honda's iconic ASIMO series

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Vanillase / Wikipedia Creative Commons

Their contribution to robotics: ASIMO or Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility is the famed series, now retired, of humanoid robots designed and built by Honda since 2000.

ASIMO was one of the first robots to successfully mimic human gait and has become an android icon over the past 21 years.

Other information: Satoshi Shigemi is best known as the senior engineer and project leader behind Honda's ASIMO project for two decades.

He, in no small part, has been instrumental in the design and creation of Honda's humanoid robot project: ASIMO. The project began in the mid to late 1980s with the goal of producing the world's first bipedal robot. 

Initially designated the E-series, early walking robots were developed by Honda between 1986 and 1993. There were superseded by their P-series developed up until 1997.

All of these were the precursor to the, now iconic, ASIMO series of robots. The later additions to the ASIMO series are able to run and walk on uneven slopes and surfaces, can turn smoothly, climb stairs and even reach and grasp objects.

They were even able to understand based voice commands and had facial recognition abilities. 

Sadly Honda recently announced they plan to retire the ASIMO series of androids. 

12. Jacob Matijevic, and Donna Shirley, and NASA's Sojourner took robots to Mars

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
NASA's Sojourner rover. Source: NASA/Wikimedia

Their contribution to robotics: The Sojourner robot used on the Mars Pathfinder mission was the first-ever robot to be deployed to the planet Mars. It was deployed on the planet's surface on the 4th July 1997 and was only supposed to last 7 days, but it ended up staying operational over 83 days.

This humble little six-wheeled, solar-powered robot pushed the limits of human understanding of robotics and communications of the time. Despite its epic journey from Earth to the Red Planet, it traveled no more than 330 ft (100 mt) by the time communications were lost.

Other information: The rover was designed by Jacob Matijevic and Donna Shirley and a large team of JPL and NASA scientists and engineers. 

Sojourner was a six-wheeled robotic probe that was semi-autonomous capable of being controlled by a human operator on Earth. Commands had a lag time of around 10 minutes, given the distance from Earth, which also meant feedback took a further ten minutes to receive back on Terra Firma

The robotic rover's main objective was to explore the surface of Mars and gather information on the soil and geology of the planet. The robot had three cameras, two monochrome to the front and one color to the rear. 

It also came equipped with an Alpha Proton X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) to determine the composition of the surface of Mars. All of its equipment was powered by a set of limited capacity batteries and a Gallium Arsenide/Germanium solar panel array capable of 18% efficiency. 

Although the mission was relatively short-lived, the information it gathered has been poured over to help improve and refine the designs of future robot probes.

13. Joe Jones: The Inventor of the Roomba

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Onfokus/iStock

Their contribution to robotics: Roomba, the famous home cleaning robot, was first released in 2002 by iRobot. It was one of, if not the, first commercially successful home cleaning robot in history.

It featured a series of sensors that let the robot navigate a space to perform its programmed cleaning activities. These sensors enabled the robot to detect obstacles, dirty spots on the floor, or steep inclines and stairs. 

Roomba uses two independently operating side wheels, that allow 360° turns in place. A rotating, 3-prong spinner brush can sweep debris from square corners to the cleaning head.

Other information: Joe Jones started out researching small robots at the MIT AI Lab when he had an interesting idea. "I got excited about the really small, reactive robots, and thought: you can do a lot with this. You could build a robot that could clean your floors."

He initially experimented by building prototype floor cleaning droids using Lego. A few years later, whilst working at Denning Mobile Robotics, he, and mechanical engineer Jack Shimek, designed a proof of concept for what would become Roomba.

The two were fired soon after pitching the idea and subsequently hired by iRobot a few months later. The rest, as they say, is history. Roomba would go through a series of improvements over time with many having interchangeable parts to enable retrofit of older models. 

14. Marc Raibert and his 'spooky' Boston Dynamics robots

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: Boston Dynamics

Their contribution to robotics: Marc Raibert and his MIT spinoff company Boston Dynamics are famed for their development of the quadrupedal robot, BigDog, and an acrobatic humanoid robot.

BigDog was been initially developed for the U.S. Military with funding from DARPA but was later discontinued as it was too loud for combat situations. Boston Dynamics built in the work spent on BigDog to develop a new form of 'dog' robot called SpotMini that was unveiled in 2016. 

The company also developed heavy lifter robots, like Atlas, and drones like Wildcat.

Other information: Raibert was an MIT Professor who founded Boston Dynamics in 1992. Some of this company's main contribution to robotics include the huge breakthrough of creating self-balancing/righting and hopping robots. 

Boston Dynamics were acquired by Google/Alphabet in 2013 but it was later sold to SoftBank in June 2017.

15. David Hanson - The man responsible for the creation of Sophia

15 Engineers and Their Inventions That Defined Robotics
Source: FII/CNBC via YouTube

Their contribution to robotics: Sophia is one of the most advanced AI androids yet created. 'She' was developed and built by the Hong-Kong Based company Hanson Robotics, who activated her in April 2015.

Sophia made her first-ever public first appearance at the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in March 2016 in Austin, Texas, United States.

Sophia has literally changed the notion of robots in part by being granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia in 2017.

Other information: Dr. David Franklin Hanson Jr. founded Hanson Robotics in 2013 in Hong-King. 

Hanson was born in 1969 in Dallas, Texas. His childhood hobbies included consuming sci-fi works of fiction from highly influential writers like Isaac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick. 

He would later study Fine Arts at Rhode Island School of Design and later a Ph.D. in Interactive Arts and Engineering. He worked as a Walt Disney imagineer, as a sculptor, and a technical consultant in robotics, and later founded Hanson Robotics. His career has since been devoted to the creation of human-like robots, of which Sophia is but one of his crowning achievements.

Editor's note: This article was updated to include more details and reflect recent developments on the subject.

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