I recently read “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov. At the beginning of the book, there is an essay by Asimov about science in science-fiction and the place of the robot in it—basically. It’s a short but interesting text and I dug a little deeper to learn more about robots.
Who Invented the Robot?
First, what are we talking about when it comes to robots? According to Merriam-Webster, a robot is:
“a machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently (as by walking or rolling on wheels) and performing complex actions (such as grasping and moving objects)”
“a device that automatically performs complicated, often repetitive tasks (as in an industrial assembly line).”
“a person who resembles a machine in seeming to function automatically or in lacking normal feelings or emotions.”
When it comes to Asimov’s robots, we are talking about the first definition, which is an evolution of the second definition.
The Origin of the Word “Robot”
In the context of a machine, the first time the word robot was used was in the 1920 play R.U.R. by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. Apparently, it was his brother Josef who really came up with the word.
“Robot” is not a word he invented as it is part of the Slavic language—robota means forced labor. It has roots in the feudal system and Čapek thought it was fitting to his story as it was about soulless artificial human bodies created to work for real humans, but revolt and exterminate their creators.
The First Robots
The first industrial robot was invented in the early 1960s by George Devol who worked for a company called Union Mate. This kind of robot is still used in manufacturing plants today. But those are the mechanic arms that repeat the same actions over and over again.
The “machine that resembles a living creature in being capable of moving independently” was first introduced at the Society of Model Engineer’s annual exhibition at the Royal Horticultural Halls on September 20, 1928. This humanoid robot created by Captain William Henry Richards was named Eric (another named George came after) and was an armor composed of aluminum animated by a 12-volt electric motor and another motor with 11 electromagnets and a few kilometers of wires.
Eric was mostly for show. It didn’t really do anything.
Created in Osaka, also in the late 1920s, Gakutensoku is the first robot to be built in the East and was designed and manufactured by biologist Makoto Nishimura (1883–1956). Inspired and a bit disturbed by R.U.R., Nishimura wanted to create a robot that would celebrate nature and humanity, not a slave. Gakutensoku could change its facial expression and move its head and hands via an air pressure mechanism. It had a pen-shaped signal arrow in its right hand and a lamp named Reikantō in its left hand. Perched on top of Gakutensoku was a bird-shaped robot named Kokukyōchō. When Kokukyōchō cried, Gakutensoku’s eyes closed and its expression became pensive. When the lamp shone, Gakutensoku started to write words with the pen.
Introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Elektro was capable of doing a bit more. Built by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, it was capable of walking by voice command, speaking about 700 words—it used a 78-rpm record player to do that—, but also smoking cigarettes, blowing up balloons, and moving his head and arms.
After World War II, the field of electronics evolved enough to allow real progress. The first electronic autonomous robots were then created by William Grey Walter in England in 1948. He used to call his creations Machina speculatrix and named them Elmer and Elsie. They didn’t look like humans, but three-wheeled tortoises. Grey Walter was fascinated by the brain and this is what guided him.
Next came George Devol and his Unimate, the first industrial robot, as I was writing about a bit earlier.
Isaac Asimov’s contributions
Isaac Asimov didn’t just write books about robots. In fact, he was the one who coined the word robotics to describe this field of study. He also famously created the “Three Laws of Robotics” and I already wrote an article about that, so I recommend you to read it!
Today, Asimov’s ideas certainly guide the development of robots, but he inspired a lot of people with different views on the subject.