In 1954, George Devol filed U.S. Patent No. 2,988,237 describing an autonomous machine that could store commands and move parts.
Devol was born in Louisville, Kentucky. From an early age, he was interested in inventing and he even helped run his school’s electric light plant. Instead of attending college, he took his practical knowledge and started his first company. The company was focused on film sound technology, and it would lead him into the development of robots.
The programmable robotic arm described in Devol’s patent was called the Unimate, a combination of the words “universal” and “automation.” This machine moved with six degrees of freedom and stored step-by-step digital commands — making it the first industrial robot ever created.
Devol’s robotic arm was designed for high-speed handling of parts up to 500 pounds and could perform a variety of tasks.
Unimation, Inc — the first robotics company in the world — was formed when Devol met Joseph Engelberger in 1956.
While Devol invented the robot, his entrepreneurial partner is credited with the successful marketing of the Unimate to manufacturers.
In 1961, the Unimate 1900 model was unveiled to the public in Chicago during a trade show. Five years later, the robotic arm made a television appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where it conducted the live band, knocked a golf ball into a cup and opened a can of beer!
The first Unimation robotic arm was sold to the GM plant in Ewing Township, New Jersey, where it was used for stacking hot metal. From there, other automotive makers licensed the technology to aid their production.
The introduction of robots transformed the automotive industry, allowing production lines to increase both efficiency and quality. The Unimate robot paved the way for today’s automatic production lines in many industries.
One of the original models of the robotic arm can be found at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
In recognition of his invention of the industrial robot, George Devol was Inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame® in 2011.