George C. Devol, inventor of robotic arm; at 99
NEW YORK - 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 Aug. 8 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 built on his own work in electrical engineering and machine controls to design a mechanical arm that could be programmed to repeat precise tasks, such as 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.
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. 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 Ewing Township, N.J. The device was used to lift and stack die-cast metal parts taken hot from their molds.
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 past 50 years. An early model is in the collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
In May, 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, 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 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 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 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 said 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.’’