Joseph F. Engelberger, an engineer who was known as the “father of robotics,” has died at age 90.
The Robotic Industries Association confirmed today that he died peacefully at his home in Newtown, Connecticut. He created the world’s first industrial robot and helped turn science fiction into reality. Industrial robots alone accounted for $1.6 billion in sales in 2014, according to the Robotic Industries Association.
Engelberger’s work “revolutionized modern industrial and automotive manufacturing processes and went on to establish robotics in human services,” the association said. Engelberger founded Unimation, the world’s first industrial robotics manufacturer.
He didn’t do all the pioneering work himself. Engelberger met fellow engineer and investor, George Devol, in 1956 at a cocktail party. They discussed sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov’s philosophies about robots, as well as Devol’s own creation of a patent-pending “programmed article transfer” device. Engelberger considered the device a robot, and then he conceived of how it could be used in manufacturing, in particular to perform jobs dangerous to humans.
Working closely with Devol, Engelberger developed the first industrial robot in the U.S., called “Unimate”, which was installed for industrial use in a General Motors plant in 1961. Since then, approximately three million industrial robots have been installed in manufacturing facilities around the world, the association said.
“Joe made some of the most important contributions to technological advancement in the history of the world,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), in a statement. “Because of Joe, robotics became a global industry. He was years ahead of his time, envisioning robots based on insects and birds decades ago –– developments that we’re finally seeing today. His question, ‘Do you think a robot could do that?’ inspired researchers to answer ‘yes’ and develop the amazing robotics applications found worldwide today.”
Engelberger sold Unimation to Westinghouse, then he shifted from industrial robotics to robotics in human services. He developed HelpMate, a robot hospital courier currently used in hospitals worldwide. For his work, he received honors such as induction into the National Academy of Engineering and the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.
And he was profiled in the London Sunday Times as one of the “1000 Makers of the 20th Century.”