A humanoid robot playing ping pong.

It has been a dream since the earliest days of our history. True, the earliest forms of robots look and behave nothing like our creations of today, but you can trace the arc of the history of robotics back through to ancient Greece, and it is important to do so, for in doing so, you begin to grasp the full width and breadth of the history of the idea. Modern robotics is one of mankind’s greatest achievements to date, and is on the cusp of ushering in a new era for all of mankind. What follows is a timeline of pivotal events that charts the progression of robotics from the earliest dreams of them into modern times.

The Beginning of Robotics

In ancient Greek literature, there are references to a “Bronze Man” called, Talos. This Bronze Man was a created by the craftsman of the gods, Hephaestus, and gifted to the Cretan King, Minos. Although crafted of bronze, the giant figure was filled with an ichor identical to that which ran in the veins of the gods themselves, and it was through the power of this ichor that the creature could move about, understand, and obey commands. This was quite literally the first envisioning of a robot as we understand the term today, but it was by no means the last. Ancient Greek history is filled with wonders that rival many of ours today, and it is easy to see the echoes of these ancient devices in our own modern versions that we use every day.

~270BC: Greek temples had hydraulic doors that opened by themselves when a person approached, organs that played music under their own power, and 24-hour water clocks. All of these devised by a brilliant engineer named Ctesibius, who in many ways, could be seen as the Great, Great Grandfather of Robotics, because embedded in his designs were primitive versions of simple gears that would pave the way for much more complex devices to follow.

~100BC: In 1901, just off the shore of the Island of Crete, explorers found the remnants of a machine that they dubbed, “The Antikythera Device.” (trivia: an MIT engineer recreated this machine with Legos in the not too distant past!) This machine, dating back to approximately

100BC: The world’s first computer. There were probably no more than twenty in existence at any one time, and they were used in two ways. First, as a calendar to keep track of when important holidays were approaching (including the Olympic games), and second, to mark and track tidal conditions. It deserves a mention here because of the staggering complexity of the gears and wheels that made the thing run. Direct predecessors of our own modern versions of the same!

Unfortunately, the Greeks were well ahead of their time, the Romans that came after them, although excellent administrators and engineers in their own right, were none too interested in this particular field of thinking. In fact, it would be more than fifteen hundred years before another significant advance was made.

From the Renaissance to the End of the American Civil War

1495: Leonardo da Vinci sketched and designed what could be thought of as the first humanoid robot, although there is no evidence that the design was ever actually produced. As designed, the “robot” was to be able to sit up, wave its arms about, and move its head to the left and right while flexing its jaw.

1645: Blaise Pascal invents a “calculating device” to help his father determine their taxes. The device was named “The Pascaline,” and perhaps fifty were built during his life. It should be noted that in 1666 a pocket version of the Pascaline was invented by a man named Samuel Morland (the Pocket Pascaline)! It is unknown precisely how many of these were built, but the reason these devices deserve a mention here is that they represent a reemergence of a technology that had been lost since before Christ. The last time we saw this type of technology was in the ancient Greek “Antikythera Device.”

1709: An inventor named Jacques de Vaucanson created a mechanical “duck.” It could flap its wings, eat, and even “digest” grain. It is notable for its exquisite articulation. The moveable wings of the creature contained over four hundred intricate moving parts, making it both a mechanical wonder and a true work of art.

1727: The word “android” is first used, and gains an entry in the Chambers Cyclopaedia. Albert Magnus coined the word when writing about his attempts to create an artificial human being.

1801: Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a loom that could be “programmed” (via a primitive punch card system) to create patterns in cloth or tissue. This is clearly a template on which later industrial and shop floor robots drew their inspiration.

1822: Charles Babbage demonstrates his prototype “Difference Engine” to the Royal Astronomical Society. His later work, the “Analytical Engine” used primitive punch cards, building on Jacquard’s earlier work with them.

1865: Robots begin appearing in American fiction, with “The Steam Man” and later, “The Electric Man” (both about ten feet tall, and both used to pull carriages). While quite far from being in any way “real,” it was clear by this point that the idea of a “robot” as we understand the term, was well on its way to popular acceptance.

1899: Nikolai Tesla demonstrates the world’s first remote-controlled vehicle. The boat he created could be commanded to go, stop, turn left or right, power its lights on or off, and even submerge. Sadly, his invention terrified the general public, which linked it to “mind control.”

Robots Come of Age

1921: The term “robot” is first used in fiction! There was a play published by a man named Karel Capek called “Rossum’s Universal Robots.” The basic plot line of the story was that a man built a robot to replace him, the robot gains awareness and kills the man. This basic story line has been used and recycled ever since!

1938: In the United States, the Westinghouse Corporation creates ELEKTRO which was unveiled at the 1939 World’s Fair. ELEKTRO was basically humanoid in appearance, and could walk, talk, and smoke!

1942: Isaac Asimov creates a work of fiction that lays the groundwork for all of modern robotics, including giving us the “three laws” of robotics (which actually became the “four laws” when a “law zero” was added later. Law Zero: A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm unless this would violate a higher order law.

  • Law One: A robot may not injure a human (or humanity), or, through inaction, allow a human (or humanity) to come to harm.
  • Law Two: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with a higher order law.
  • Law Three: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with a higher order law.

1942: The first “shop floor robot” is designed by the team of Harold Roselund and Willard Pollard for the DeVilbiss Company. It is a “programmable” paint-sprayer!

1947: The transistor was accidentally developed by Walter Brattain as he was studying how electrons acted on the surface of a semiconductor. This happy accident was a paradigm shift that completely changed the nature and character of electronics going forward.

1948: W. Grey Walter created Elmer and Elsie – The Turtle Robots. They were capable of (slow) movement and of finding their charging stations when their battery power began to run low.

1950: The “Turing Test” is devised when Alan Turing publishes a work called “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” in which he proposes a means to determine whether or not a machine has gained the power to think for itself. Every year since, a contest is held between various developers to determine how close they have come to creating a true “Turing Machine.” To pass the test, the robot must be absolutely indistinguishable from a human in conversation. This is a pivotal event in the history of robotics because it provides a benchmark for the whole of the industry that still stands to this day.

1951: Raymond Goertz designed a prototype tele-operated articulated arm. The major achievement here is that it ushered in a whole new generation of factory floor robots that forever changed the face of automated manufacturing. (Trivia: It was also one of the key technologies that led to “force feedback” in video games!)

Modern Robotics

1954: George Devol and Joseph Engleberger designed and built the first fully programmable robot, UNIMATE. The UNIMATE is still in production to this very day, and it earned Joseph Engelberger the title of the Father of Modern Robotics.

1957: The Soviet Union successfully deploys Sputnik I, the world’s first autonomous, artificial satellite. Another absolute game changer!

1962: The first operational, industrial robots appear in North America, in a candy factory in Ontario, Canada.

1964: Artificial intelligence research labs are opened at the University of Edinburgh, Stanford University, and MIT.

1968: A manually controlled walking truck was designed and built by R. Mosher. The device could walk at speeds up to four miles per hour.

1968: The Stanford Research Institute builds “Shakey” which was a mobile robot equipped with its own, on-board vision system. It was controlled by a computer roughly the size of a living room.

1969: Building on the work of Goertz, a decade earlier, Victor Scheinman (Stanford) builds the first electrically powered computer controlled robotic arm.

1969: The WAP-1 was built by Ichiro Kato. It was a properly scaled bipedal robot with air bags connected to its frame to simulate artificial muscles. A later iteration, WAP-3 could walk on flat surfaces and climb up and down stairs and slopes. It could also execute mid-motion turns.

1973: V. S. Gurfinkel and colleagues at the Russian Academy of Science create the first six-legged walking vehicle.

1973: Ichiro Kato improves on his earlier creations with the WABOT I which is the world’s first full-scale anthropomorphic robot. It had systems for limb control, vision, and even conversation! Estimates placed the mental ability of this creation at about that of an 18 month old child.

1973: Cincinnati Milacron releases the T3, the world’s first commercially available minicomputer-controlled industrial robot.

1974: Intel produces the 8080 general purpose chip. This is vital to the entire tech field, not just robotics, as this brought us a giant step closer to the first practical and useful personal computers.

1975: PUMA (Programmable Universal Manipulation Arm) is sold to factories. This is the latest iteration of increasingly complex robotic arms used in manufacturing.

1975: The MITS ALTAIR computer kit, based on the 8080 chip set is arguably the world’s first PC.

1977: In another case of art informing technology, the first Star Wars movie is released, inspiring a whole new generation of scientists and thinkers.

1979: The Stanford Cart crossed an obstacle filled room without human assistance, using an onboard camera mounting system to photograph its surroundings from different angles, then calculate the distance to barriers via a simple, built in computer used to aid in navigation.

1980: Quasi-dynamic walking was first mastered by Ichiro Kato with the WL-9DR, which could take a step every ten seconds thanks to its on-board computer recalculating for its altered position. Due to the limits of processing power of the day, it could only take one step every ten seconds or so.

1981: Shegeo Hirose develops the Titan II, a quadruped robot that could reliably climb stairs, building on earlier work in this area.

1985: The RB5X, created by the General Robotics Corp was the first example of a robot that bears characteristics that we associate with today’s technology. The robot was equipped with remote A/V transmission capability, bump sensors, a voice synthesizer, and an array of infrared sensors. It also had onboard software and sufficient built in processing power that it could “learn” about its environment and adapt to it in limited fashion.

1988: The first HelpMate service robot went to work at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut.

1989: Robots take to the water with the creation of Aquabot, by the Robotics Laboratory of Japan. Designing a robot that could survive aquatic conditions posed a variety of technical challenges, but Aquabot proved that it could be done!

1990: A company called iRobot was founded by Brooks, Angle, and Greiner to produce domestic and military ‘bots. Note the lower case “i” in the company name. Look familiar?

1993: In another milestone, a robot called Dante proved it could withstand extreme temperatures by exploring Mt. Erebrus in Antarctica. Sadly, Dante was lost when its tether broke and it fell to its doom, but it should be noted that the overall design was a success, and Dante II was soon created to resume exploration duties in cold weather climates.

1996: David Barrett (MIT) creates “RoboTuna” to study how fish swim. Its major contribution is that we now see robots beginning to move with more fluidity and grace. Later that same year, automaker Honda would reveal the P2, which was the world’s first self-regulating bipedal humanoid robot.

1997: NASA’s Pathfinder robot lands on Mars and beams fantastic images back to Earth.

1997: IBM’s “Deep Blue” supercomputer beats chess champion Gary Kasparov, the first time a computer has ever defeated a Grand Champion chess player.

1997: Honda (automaker) releases the P3, an upgrade to its earlier effort. This robot is completely autonomous.

1998: Dr. Cynthia creates a robot called “Kismet” which emotionally interacts with human. This is another groundbreaking milestone. Not only are robots becoming increasingly self sufficient and more graceful in their movements, now they are becoming more “like us.” 1998: The LEGO company releases a product called “Mindstorms” which is a robotic development kit aimed at children. Robots have officially become mainstream.

1998: Campbell Aird becomes the first man to be fitted with a “bionic arm.”

1999: Cye, the first personal robot, is sold commercially. It is designed to perform a variety of household chores (delivering mail, vacuuming, and carrying dishes).

2001: iRobot Packbots search through the rubble of the World Trade Center. Later versions of this design are used in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Also in 2001, MD Robotics of Canada took the concept of the robotic arm into space with the Space Station Remote Manipulator System, which was used to construct the International Space Station.

2002: Honda (automaker) makes further improvements on their robotic designs with the release of ASIMO (the Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility). The bipedal, humanoid robot is designed to be a personal assistant that “recognizes” its owner’s voice, face, and name. It can read email and is capable of streaming video from its onboard cameras to a PC.

2002: iRobot releases the first generation Roomba – a robotic vacuum cleaner. Cats everywhere live in terror.

2003: Building on the earlier success with the Pathfinder, NASA launches Spirit and Sojourner to continue with Mars explorations.

2005: The Korean Institute of Science and Technology creates HUBO, the smartest mobile robot in the world. This robot is linked to a computer via a high-speed wireless connection. The importance of this cannot be understated! By taking the processor away from the robot, we can shrink the size of the robot, and we begin to see the emergence of cloud-based robotic processing.

2005: In probably the most astonishing achievement of the age, Cornell University creates the world’s first self-replicating robots.

2007: DARPA hosts its first “Grand Challenge” – these challenges are designed to test the limits of robotics in a variety of environments. The first Grand Challenge is set in an urban setting, with the purpose of enhancing robotic abilities in an urban environment and responding appropriately to the special challenges faced in that setting.

2010: Household robots become increasingly more common and much more readily available, commercially.

Since 2010, there have been a great many additional advancements in the technology. Robots are ever more graceful, fluid, smarter, faster, and better. They’re able to survive in nearly every conceivable type of environment, and can communicate ever more effectively with us. There have even been successful experiments in cybernetics advances in micro-expression identification, and even controlling machines with the power of thought alone!

So what does the future hold?

The future of robotics is bright indeed. With the creation of the first self-replicating robots, we can expect to see a convergence of technologies. Imagine robotic factories where robots can not only produce goods and services for all of us, but can also create their own replacement parts and even more advanced versions of themselves. It is true, we have all seen science fiction movies depicting the bad ends that these kinds of advances can come to, and we should, by all means, proceed sensibly and cautiously, but this technology already exists. The ideas are already out there in the world, and have been for a number of years, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The future is coming, whether we are ready for it or not.

Robots will continue to advance at breakneck speed, merging with other technologies like 3d printing and biotech. Nanobots will increasingly be used to treat disease and injury. Robots will shrink and vanish before our eyes, merging with technology we use every day. Our phones. Our glasses. Our clothing. They will become increasingly like us, and increasingly a part of us. It is an exciting future indeed!

Science | Technology

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