A brief history of robotics


Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director of EU Automation, discusses milestones in robotics, from ancient mythology to the present day

The earliest known suggestion of an intelligent tool capable of human labour came from Aristotle in 320BC, in his famous quote: “If every tool when ordered, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it… then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers or of slaves for the lords”.

Today, robots are increasingly commonplace across a variety of applications, both industrial and at home. 

Ancient mythology

The idea of artificial life is firmly rooted among both mythology and folklore. In Greek mythology it is said that the god Hephaestus made ancient robots as workshop assistants, as well as a giant robot guard, Talos. Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and metalworking, is said to have made gold slave girls. Another early myth is Golem from Jewish folklore, an animated being created from inanimate matter.

Early conceptions and beginnings

The idea of mechanical automata dates back over 2000 years. Around 60BC Hero of Alexandria constructed a three wheeled cart that could follow a pre-programmed route. The cart was powered by a falling weight, which pulled on a rope wrapped around two axles.

The direction of the cart could be changed using pegs. This primitive mechanism is similar to modern binary code, as each segment had two settings, and resulted in different actions depending on how they were arranged.

In 1478, Leonardo da Vinci designed what is considered the first self propelled wagon, powered by clockwork springs. He also created a drawing of the earliest recorded humanoid, his knight in armour, but it is unknown whether da Vinci’s sketch was ever constructed. This early robot could in theory perform several movements including sitting up and waving.

This early idea of robots interacting with humans is used industrially today. Baxter, the dual armed humanoid robot, has an LCD display ‘face’ and can react to human interaction. This means robots can now work alongside humans and this has unlocked new applications.

Modern robotics

Further innovation in the field of mechanics and the introduction of electricity were significant drivers in the field of robotics. The development of modern robotics also depended on several critical inventions, such as a motor to provide actuation, as well as devices for automation and control.

In the mid 20th century came new concepts from the field of cybernetics and the development of Walter’s tortoises. These tortoises were simple two cell systems, which could demonstrate several behaviours including obstacle avoidance and the ability to move towards and away from light. The tortoises are generally seen as the first electronic autonomous robots.

Introduction to industry

The first wide scale introduction of robots happened in factories and this remains their most prevalent use today. The first programmable robot arm able to perform tasks was developed by George Devol and Joe Engelberger.

It later became known as Unimate, the first industrial robot. It was introduced into a General Motors assembly line in 1961, performing predominantly repetitive and dangerous tasks on the automotive production line. The year 1978 saw the introduction of SCARA, Selective Compliance Articulated Robot Arm. This type of robot has unique 4-axis motion and is ideal for pick-and-place applications.

Manipulating industrial robots now act as the workhorses of the manufacturing industry. These tend not to be intelligently run, but are multipurpose and capable of being reprogrammed. Industrial robots were initially applied to hot, heavy and hazardous jobs, and are now used in a wide range of applications.

The International Federation of Robotics revealed record breaking sales of 240,000 industrial robots in 2015. The automotive and the electronics industries are investing considerably in automation.

The main drivers of growth internationally have been described as Asia and North America. Global sales increased eight per cent in 2015 – record breaking sales for the third year in a row. It is clear that globally, industry is exploring the benefits of intelligent and connected production.

Industrial robots have come a long way since they were introduced in 1961. Newer generations of robots are no longer locked in cages away from humans for safety reasons; instead they work alongside them.

This generation of industrial robots is known as collaborative robots, or cobots. Sensors that shut the robot down if it gets too close to a human have been developed. Many cobots do not require complex programming, they can be taught new skills. However, these still only make up a small proportion of all industrial robots today.

Intelligent machines are becoming increasingly commonplace. In the next few years robots are expected to be ubiquitous in industry, military, search and rescue, medical and research settings. Robots are also expected to be popular in the home environment, with iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner proving not too far from Aristotle’s early conception of the replacement of slaves.

Robots have come a long way since Aristotle’s definition. Although they might not be suitable for every industrial application or environment, their slightly older counterpart, industrial automation machinery, is already being used widely across a range of industry sectors.

For manufacturers that use legacy industrial automation systems, sourcing industrial obsolete components can be a serious challenge.

To help, EU Automation can provide a wide range of obsolete, reconditioned and new components. This will help keep your industrial line up and running before an upgrade that may include the latest generation of industrial robots.