The history of Robots depends a lot on what one understands as a robot. If we consider a robot to be a machine, which can perform automated activities and at the same time is programmable, the first robot in the history was designed and constructed by the Arab inventor Al Jazari in 1206. It was an “entertaining robot” where a drummer could play several different tunes, depending on how he was programmed.
Leonardo da Vinci
Later the famous Leonardo da Vinci designed several robots, where the most well known is “Leonardo’s robot” – a mechanical knight, who can wave with the arms and move its head and jaws. It is not known, if Leonardo da Vinci ever tried to build this robot.
The Japanese craftsman Hisashige Tanaka created several mechanical toys able to serve tea and even paint, which also must be considered as a kind of robots.
The first digitally operated, modern robot was designed by George Devol and Joseph Engelberger in 1954. Their initial idea was to write a science fiction novel, but along the road they decided to develop the real robot. It was called Unimate and was sold to General Motors in 1960. It was installed it in the Trenton plant in New Jersey, where it lifted hot metal pieces from a die casting machine and stacked them. This robot is a 4-axis robot.
The first palletizing robot was developed by Fuji Yusoki Kogyo in 1963, and the real step forward came in 1973, when KUKA introduced Famulus – the world’s first 6-axis electromechanically driven robot.
The invention of the PC
A key function of a robot is being programmable. Thus,the lack of a compact programming module made it quite complicated to implement smart robot solutions. The introduction of the PC in the late 1970-ties opened up for the robots giant steps forward (IBM PC 1981).
Various types of robots
With the compact PC it quickly became possible to develop dedicated robots for many purposes, and the market divided itself into two totally different segments:
Industrial robots quickly penetrated the auto-manufacturing industry along the assembly lines, and welding and palletizing robots became popular too, as well as robots for manufacturing electronics like printed circuits.
A special kind of industrial robots are AGVs – Automatic Guided Vehicles – which, in fact, are robots on wheels.
Domestic robots are mainly used by the households, and the degree of penetration is still limited. Some robot vacuum cleaners and lawn cutters have been introduced, and some artificial “pet animal” robots have been introduced, mainly in Japan.
Robots in use
Today, the estimates are, that the world uses around 3.500.000 domestic robots, while there is more than 1 million industrial robots working every day in the factories.
The estimates are that nearly 50% of all robots are installed in Asia, 35% in Europe and around 15% in USA.
What is a robot?
While many think they know what a robot is, it is difficult to find a simple and clear definition of a robot. ISO (International Organization for Standardization) defines a robot in the following way:
“An automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose, manipulator programmable in three or more axis, which may be either fixed in a place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications”
So a robot is an artificial helper or agent that works without human interference, and which can be programmed to perform several tasks.
To most people a standard robot looks a little like a single-arm crane; but it can, in fact, have several arms and look more like a human being, and it can be moveable. The difference between a robot and a machine is the robot’s ability to do something by itself, i.e. reacting to something and seem to have an intent or agency.
The name robot
In the Czech language the word “robota” means “labor”, so robot is originally coming from The Czech Republic.
The story goes, that the Czech author Karel Capek in 1920 decided to write a science fiction play about a factory, which would manufacture a kind of “artificial workers”. As a word for artificial workers did not exist, the author’s brother suggested labeling them “roboti”. The play (R.U.R – Rossums Universal Robots) was an instant success and appeared later as a Hollywood movie (it will reappear as the movie R.U.R in 2011), and the name “robot” soon became a household word. In today’s vocabulary Capek’s artificial workers are probably closer to “androids” or “clones” but this cannot change the fact that “robots” were born.
Robotics is the engineering science and technology of robots, related to mechanics, electronics and software.
The word “robotics” was invented by the Russian born American Isaac Asimov, who is rated among the world’s best science fiction authors. In 1942 the word was introduced in his “Three Laws of Robotics” – the software stored in all robot brains to make them obey their human masters.