The idea of artificial beings is nothing new to human civilization.
Human organization and solidarity is molded by the relationship of an in-group to the proverbial “other”; whole identities can be constructed from the inclusion of certain characteristics and the exclusion of others. The various types of robots that have permeated or contemporary society are an extension of this. They possess some characteristics we deride, yet have others we see as ideal.
Who invented the first robot?
The first contemporary digitally programmable robot was invented by George Devol in 1954. Nicknamed “Unimate”, the machine was a simple autonomous arm that could perform repetitive industrial tasks.
Of course, this psychological-exclusionist tendency has been the basis of many horrible acts of dehumanization over the course of history. However, when used as a lens to view our cybernetic creations — particularly those fashioned in our own image — it is evident that much of the human psyche can be seen in the mirror that these inventions provide. Perhaps it is a desire for a world greater than the one we currently occupy? The jury is still out, but one thing is for certain: robotics will forever change the landscape of human culture and society.
In this article, we’ll dive into the history of robotics, from the earliest myths of antiquity to the most startling inventions of the past decade.
At their core, robots can best be described as artificial servants, an idea that stretches all the way back to Ancient Egypt. And while the technology to build robots as we might recognize them today was centuries from being invented, the idea of a robot was certainly alive and well.
Ancient myths are some of the earliest sources for how our ancestors saw themselves and the world around them. It’s somewhat telling that you can find many examples of artificial machines created in one way or another to supplant organic human activity. One of the most famous of these stories was of the bronze giant Talos from Greek Mythology. Created by the god Hephaestus to protect the island of Crete, he would hurl boulders at passing ships to prevent pirates from ransacking the island.
Depiction of Talos defending the Isle of Crete
While some of these myths clearly fused the idea of robots with artificial intelligence, many other examples exist of machines that carried out particular physical tasks without the need for direct human operation. These were often powered by hydraulics or steam and could perform tasks as varied as telling the time to providing entertainment for rich citizens of the ancient world.
These depictions of what would eventually become robots had little in the way of development until the 20th century. Aside from great thinkers such as Leonardo daVinci, few examples of “classic” robots exist. Despite this, many inventors around the world used pneumatic and hydraulic power to create rudimentary automatons that could perform a wide range of tasks. It wasn’t until the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the new leaps in energy technology that came along with it did we start to see fully autonomous machines capable of performing increasingly complex tasks.
The current stage of robotic development has brought us full circle to the myths of antiquity: intelligent automatons that can both act and think independent of human intervention. Creations that could one day come to share the very elements that make us human.
Continue reading for the most important historical events in the development of robotics from mythical stories to the high tech reality of today and beyond.
Milestones in the development of robots
While the current advances in robotic technology have been no surprise to a society inundated with science-fiction narratives, the astounding leaps made even as far back as ancient Egypt are another matter entirely, and given much less attention than they deserve. Read on for some of the greatest achievements in robotics from the dawn of civilization to today.
Robots of antiquity
1500 BCE: One of the earliest mechanisms for telling time, the Egyptian Water Clock would often use bipedal humanoid figures as the mechanism for automatically striking hour bells. This is the simplest form of hydraulic power (converting the flow of water into energy).
1088 BCE: The Chinese artisan Su Song creates the Cosmic Engine, a 30 foot clock tower that had a variety of different features such as mannequins that would chime the hours or ring bells and gongs.
400 BCE: Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum builds the first self-propelled flying device known as “The Pigeon” which was powered by steam and capable of short bursts of flight.
300 BCE: Famous Greek philosopher Aristotle ruminates on the possibility of achieving total human equality with robots and machines by eliminating the then commonplace practice of slavery.
Early modern robots
1495: Leonardo daVinci creates what is now referred to as the “robot knight” out of a series of mechanical levers and a suite of Medieval knight’s armor. According to sources, it could sit, stand, and move its arms.
1800: The French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created three rudimentary robots; two of which could play a variety of musical instruments such as the flute or trumpet, while the third was a duck that could flap its wings, move, and even mimic eating.
1842: The Countess of Lovelace and renowned English mathematician Ada Byron writes the first algorithm for the analytics engine. While the Countess died before it’s completion, it did serve as the first recorded precursor to digital computers.
Related: Expand your knowledge even further when you learn more about the history of computers.
1898: Nikola Tesla unveils a submersible that can be controlled using radio waves. When asked if it was a remote-controlled torpedo, he replied by saying it was a “mechanical man, which will do the laborious work of the human race.”
1900 — 1930s
1900: Lyman Frank Braum introduces one of the first cybernetic humans in the form of the Tin Man from his children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
1917: Remote controlled weapons and vehicles are used for the first time based on the technology developed by Nikola Tesla.
1921: Czech playwright Karel Capek coins the term “robot” as a way to describe automata in fiction. It comes from the Czech word “roba” which means servant or slave. The word has since evolved to encompass all forms of autonomous machinery.
1927: The film Metropolis is released, featuring the robot Maria, who serves as one of the primary antagonists of the story.
1942: The titan of science-fiction writing, Isaac Asimov, coins the term “robotics” and introduces his Three Laws of Robotics.
1946: The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENAIC) is invented.
1950: George Devol invented the first autonomous industrial robot UNIMATE which was capable of welding die casting onto cars on an assembly line.
1959: Researchers at MIT introduce computer-assisted manufacturing.
1961: George Devol’s invention UNIMATE is sold to General Motors and becomes the first robot in the workforce and serves to this day as the foundation for the modern robotics industry. The 60’s also saw many advancements in the power and functionality of robotic arms in general.
1963: The computer-controlled Rancho Arm is invented to help disabled patients at the California hospital Ranchos Los Amigos.
It is later purchased by Stanford University for use into research on robotics and prosthetics, ushering in a new form of human-centric robots known as “cobots”.
1968: The Tentacle Arm is created by Marvin Minsky. It had 12 joints which can operate independently and were powered by hydraulics.
1970: Weapons meets robotics once again with the development of terminal guidance, a radar based robotics system that helps direct missiles and explosives in-flight before they detonate, drastically increasing their destructive potential.
1971: The Soviet Union lands the first robotic exploration craft on Mars. It touched down on the surface and transmitted for about 17 seconds before malfunctioning.
1972: Operation Linebacker proves the efficacy of laser-guided bombs in the closing years of the Vietnam War.
1972: The Japanese WABOT project is completed with the deployment of WABOT-1, the world’s first life-size intelligent human robot. It could walk unaided as well as grasp and transport objects with tactile sensors in its hands. It could also communicate in Japenese using a sophisticated cranial sensory array that included ears, eyes, and a mouth.
1974: The robotic teacher Leachim has been invented with the ability to synthesize human speech. It is programmed with a course curriculum and tested on a class of 4th graders in the Bronx, New York.
1977: Star Wars is released, featuring two prominent robot protagonists, C3-P0 and R2D2.
Interested in learning more about smart robots? Want to start working on your own? G2 has hundreds of real user reviews on the best machine learning software on the market.
1981: Takeo Kanade invents the first “direct drive arm”, an industrial robotic arm that combined the robotic “brain” with the mechanical manipulators in one machine.
1984: WABOT-2 is completed. It has motor and sensory control fine enough to allow it to read and play the organ, to the point it could even accompany a human musician.
1989: Rodney Brooks creates Ghengis, a hexapedal robot meant to traverse difficult terrain. Ghengis was modeled after organic insects, who have very limited intelligence but possess relatively incredible physical aptitude. It was notable for its cheap construction and development time, which has given rise to a trend of incremental development in robotics.
1994: John Adler invents the Cyberknife, a robotic surgery system that is subsequently cleared by the USA’s FDA. First used at Stanford university, this robot made use of robotic positioning and radio imagery to help foster ultra-fine precision in delicate medical procedures and was used for brain and spine surgeries.
1997: The robot rover Sojourner is launched to Mars. It was only expected to operate for a week but managed to explore the planet for over three months before losing contact with Earth. It was able to gather environmental data and conduct several scientific experiments, the results of which were transmitted back to NASA. The onboard computer allowed it to react to unplanned events and obstacles, even with minimal data.
1997: IBM’s Deep Blue computer defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov, heralding a landmark achievement in robotic AI’s ability to plan and react.
1999: Sony releases a robotic dog, AIBO, that was capable of interacting with humans. It was wildly popular as a commercial product that was able to be programmed for a variety of different functions, up to and including animatronic sports.
2000s and beyond
2001: Great leaps are made in aerospace robotics: Canadarm 2 is launched and attached to the International Space Station. Heralded as the first “smart” part of the station, it plays a key role in the maintenance of the station. Furthermore, the first autonomous flying robot, known as the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Global Hawk, makes a 22 hour non-stop flight from California across the Pacific Ocean and the Eurasian supercontinent to land in Edinburgh, Scotland.
2002: The popular consumer robot Roomba is released by iRobot and is widely adopted across the United States.
2005: Self-driving cars become more and more possible, though they are not yet safe for road testing.
2011: Robonaut-2 is launched to the International Space Station and becomes the first humanoid robot in space. It currently serves as a training tool for roboticists in space, though is currently being upgraded to help astronauts complete dangerous, out of station spacewalks.
2017: The robot Sophia is granted Suadi Arabian citizenship. It becomes the first robot to be recognized with a gender identity and nationality. This raises several ethical problems, such as whether or not the deliberate shut-down of Sophia would be considered murder.
2019: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania create millions of nanobots over the span of a few weeks using technology from semiconductors. They are small enough to be injected into the human body and controlled remotely.
Back to the future
It is startling to think that robotics is such a relatively “new” industry given the psychological and emotional roots of automata in civilization’s history. From the myths of the ancient world to the startling technological developments of today, it is evident that this is only the beginning of our species’s narrative with the cybernetic other. And who knows? Perhaps in the not too distant future, they will have a greater hand in molding that story than we could have possibly imagined.
The history of robots is in many ways paralleled by the history of artificial intelligence. Check out our guide to all the important milestones in that technology for a full picture on the development of the classic robot!
Piper is a former content associate at G2. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, they graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in Sociology. Their interests include podcasts, rock climbing, and understanding how people form systems of knowledge in the digital age. (they/them/theirs)