George C. Devol, Inventor of Robot Arm, Dies at 99
By JEREMY PEARCE
Published: August 15, 2011
George C. Devol, a largely self-taught inventor who drew from science fiction to help develop Unimate, the revolutionary mechanical arm that became a prototype for robots now widely used on automobile assembly lines and in other industries, died on Thursday at his home in Wilton, Conn. He was 99.
His death was confirmed by his son Robert.
In the early 1950s, before the advent of industrial robotics, Mr. Devol (pronounced de-VAHL) built on his own work in electrical engineering and machine controls to design a mechanical arm that could be programmed to repeat precise tasks, like grasping and lifting.
He applied for a patent in 1954 and explained the concept to a fellow engineer, Joseph F. Engelberger, at a cocktail party where they discussed their favorite science fiction writers. Mr. Engelberger listened with interest and immediately seized on the significance of the new technology.
Mr. Devol named the concept Universal Automation — later shortened to Unimation — and received a patent in 1961. Mr. Engelberger formed a company, Unimation Inc., of Danbury, Conn., to adapt and apply the ideas of Mr. Devol and other innovators, and soon came up with the Unimate, an early and highly successful effort to replace factory workers with robotic machinery.
In 1961, General Motors put the first Unimate arm on an assembly line at the company’s plant in Trenton. The device was used to lift and stack die-cast metal parts taken hot from their molds.
Chrysler and Ford soon followed, in the face of resistance from labor unions, and Unimates designed for welding, spray-painting, applying adhesives and other potentially hazardous jobs were in production by 1966.
The Japanese were particularly receptive to the Unimation vision of mobile and remotely controlled robots, using them in industry and in service applications, like hospitals.
In 2002, Popular Mechanics magazine listed the Unimate as one of the top 50 inventions of the last 50 years. An early model is in the collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
In May of this year, Mr. Devol was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The citation states, in part, “George Devol’s patent for the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm represents the foundation of the modern robotics industry.”
His associate, Mr. Engelberger, became an internationally recognized voice for the promise of robotics, appearing on “The Tonight Show“ in 1966 with a Unimate, which sank a putt, led the orchestra, and opened and poured a can of beer. Unimation eventually expanded to 1,000 employees and was acquired by Westinghouse in the early 1980s.
Mr. Devol later opened a scientific consulting business in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and continued to work on refining visual and touch sensors for robots, among other challenges.
In 1983, he said that a robot must “be able to receive and use information from computers and give information to computers.” He said the next step in the evolution of robotics was standardized designs worldwide to allow robots to communicate and work directly with one another.
George Charles Devol Jr. was born Feb. 20, 1912, in Louisville, Ky. An experimenter from an early age, he studied mechanics and electronics in high school, but did not attend college. He worked for electronics companies in the 1920s, and in the early 1930s founded a small company, United Cinephone, to develop recording technology for movies.
That initial venture was not fruitful, and Mr. Devol turned his inventor’s hand to making devices that open doors automatically and other devices using machine controls. He also found a way to make laundry presses open or close when a worker approached. In 1939 United Cinephone installed automated photoelectric counters at the New York World’s Fair to count entering customers.
In the 1940s, Mr. Devol helped in an early application of the microwave oven, with the introduction of a machine for cooking and vending hot dogs, known as the “Speedy Weeny.”
Mr. Devol’s wife, Evelyn, died in 2003. Besides his son Robert, survivors include his daughters, Christine Wardlow and Suzanne Judkins; another son, George C. III; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Mr. Devol said that new technology should be simple and practical.
“We should take refuge in the fact that very crude systems can accomplish an awful lot,” he once said. “Elegant capabilities are nice, but often unnecessary.”