It is with great sadness that we say “goodbye” to George C. Devol, a self-taught inventor that created the robotic arm in the 1960s. Mr. Devol was 99 at the time of death, but his innovations live on worldwide. His story is inspirational, especially in these days of downgrades, economic stagnation and joblessness.
Born in Louisville, Ky in 1912, George Devol was an experimenter at an early age. While he never attended college he took great interest in mechanics and electronics in high school. Working hard in the 1920s for a variety of electronics companies he eventually founded United Cinephone in the 1930s. It was not until 1939 that United Cinephone had its big hit with its automated photoelectric counters at the New York World’s Fair.
Then Devol went on to develop the predecessor to the microwave with a hot dog vending machine called the “Speedy Weeny.” After attending a cocktail party with fellow engineer, Joseph F. Engelberger, they formed a company, Unimation Inc., and soon created the Unimate – the first “robot worker”. Unimate arm was implemented in 1961 by General Motors in the company’s plant in Trenton, NJ. Soon after GM, Chrysler and Ford followed suit in 1966, even while facing growing protests from labor unions across the nation as it replaced humans on the production line.
Fast forward to this century, Popular Mechanics magazine (2002) listed the Unimate as one of the top 50 inventions of the last 50 years and the early model can be found in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. This past May, George Devol was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The citation reads, “George Devol’s patent for the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm represents the foundation of the modern robotics industry.” The NY Times said today that Mr. Devol believed that “new technology should be simple and practical” a guiding principle that we can take to heart in every endeavor we explore.
Thank you Kris Brown for bringing this to my attention!