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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
George Devol dies aged 98
Article Type: News From: Industrial Robot: An International Journal, Volume 39, Issue 2
George Charles Devol, Jr was an American inventor who was awarded the patent for Unimate, the first Industrial Robot. Devol’s patent for the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm represented the foundation of the modern robotics industry.
In 1954, Devol applied for patent on Programmed Article Transfer that introduced the concept of Universal Automation or Unimation; US Patent 2,988,237 was issued in 1961.
When he filed the patent for a programmable method for transferring articles, he wrote, “the present invention makes available for the first time a more or less general purpose machine that has universal application to a vast diversity of applications where cyclic digital control is desired.” Devol’s patent for the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm represents the foundation of the modern robotics industry.
After applying for this seminal patent – which had not a single prior citation – Devol searched for a company willing to give him financial backing to develop his programmable articles transfer system. He talked with many major corporations in the USA during his search. He famously met Joseph F. Engelberger at a cocktail party and together they found a backer in consolidated diesel electronic (Condec), which agreed to put up the financing for the continued development of the robot. This new Condec division was called Unimation Incorporated with Joseph Engelberger as its president (Figure 1).
In 1960, Devol personally sold the first Unimate robot, which was shipped in 1961 from Danbury, Connecticut to General Motors. GM first used the machine for die casting handling and spot welding. The first Unimate robot was installed at GM’s Inland Fisher Guide Plant in Ewing Township, New Jersey in 1961 to lift hot pieces of metal from a die-casting machine and stack them. Soon companies such as Chrysler, Ford, and Fiat saw the necessity for large Unimate purchases.
Approximately $5 million was spent to develop the first Unimate. In 1966, after many years of market surveys and field tests, full scale production began in Connecticut. Unimation’s first production robot was a materials handling robot and was soon followed by robots for welding and other applications.
In 1975, Unimation showed its first profit. In 1978, the (programmable universal machine for assembly (PUMA) robot was developed by Unimation from Vicarm (Victor Scheinman) and with support from General Motors.
In 2005, Popular Mechanics magazine selected Devol’s Unimate as one of the top 50 inventions of the past 50 years.