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A Jameco Salute to George C. Devol

Father of Robotics dies at 99

By Frances Reed

The early 1950s were a time of boundless technological imagination, fueled by the science fiction of Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells and The Twilight Zone. George C. Devol was often inspired by these fantastical visions. The largely self-taught inventor drew from science fiction to help develop Unimate, the revolutionary mechanical arm that became a prototype for industrial robots in 1954. Devol died on August 11, 2011 at his home in Wilton, Connecticut. He was 99.

In May of this year, Devol was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The citation states, "George Devol's patent for the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm represents the foundation of the modern robotics industry."

In 2005, Popular Mechanics magazine listed the Unimate as one of the top 50 inventions of the last 50 years. Born in Louisville, KY in 1912, Devol was interested from boyhood in all things electrical and mechanical such as boats, airplanes and engines.
Devol's first inventionUnimate Arm in Action

One of Devol's first inventions was the first automatically opening door, the Phantom Doorman. This photoelectric door model is basically the same as the ones we walk through many times a day in most every store.

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."

The first Unimate robotic prototypes were controlled by vacuum tubes used as digital switches though later versions used transistors. Devol and his skilled team of engineers designed and machined practically every part in the first Unimates. They also invented a variety of new technologies, including a unique rotating drum memory system with data parity controls.

In 1961, General Motors was the first company to put the Unimate arm on an assembly line at the company's plant in Trenton, NJ. Used to lift and stack die-cast metal parts taken hot from their molds, the potential for robots wasn't readily obvious to industry leaders. After a luke warm reception in the US, Japanese manufacturers loved it and went on to dominate the global market for industrial robots.

Other Devol inventions include: early bar code system, first optical registration controls for color offset printing presses and packaging machinery, automatic laundry press, early radar devices and microwave test equipment, counter-radar devices (anti-artillery), a magnetic recording system for controlling machines, digital playback device, visual and tactile sensors for robots, coaxial connectors, and magnetostrictive manipulators or "microrobotics", a field he created.

See video of early Unimate robot in action.
Microwave Vending Machine Speedy WeenyMicrowave Vending Machine Speedy Weeny

H. G. Wells could have been referring to Devol, when, in the closing lines of War of the Worlds, he wrote, "For neither do men live nor die in vain." With Devol's concepts and machines still at the center of technology, Devol will live on.
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