The modern concept of robots began to develop in the past 200 years during the Industrial Revolution with the introduction of electricity and small compact motors. But the true history of robotics dates back to 3000 BC when the first instances of mechanical devices such as dolls, Egyptian water clocks, used to strike the hour bells, and hydraulically-operated statues were built!
Countless ingenius, yet impractical machines were created since then throughout an elaborately intertwined history of science and technology, planting the first seeds of inspiration for the modern robot. The timeline of robotics is, therefore complex and far from complete.
Robotics represents one of humanity’s most significant accomplishments to produce an artificially intelligent being, similar to humans. It was only in recent years that manufacturers were able to make robotics increasingly available and attainable to the general public.
In this post, we present an entire timeline of robotics from 400 BC, to provide our readers with a general overview of robotics, and to give an appreciation for the innovators and inventors, who helped robotics become what it is today.
~ 400 BC
Ancient Greek mathematician Archytas of Taremtum, inventor of the pulley and the screw, invented a wooden, steam-powered pigeon that could fly. It is believed to be the first-ever self-propelled flying device. The robo-bird was able to fly several hundred meters.
~ 322 BC
The Greek philosopher Aristotle made this famous quote, hinting how nice it would be to have a few robots around: “If every tool, when ordered, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it… then there would be no need either of apprentices for the master workers or of slaves for the lords.”
~ 278 – 212 BC
The greatest mathematician that ever lived on Earth, Archimedes created many innovative machines, such as his screw pump (know as Archimedes’ screw), compound pulleys, and defensive war machines to protect his native Syracuse from invasion. Many of these mechanical systems are used in robotics today.
~ 270 BC
Greek inventor and physicist Ctesibus of Alexandria designed water clocks with movable figures. A big breakthrough for timepieces and the first truly automatic self-regulatory device, the clock had a reservoir with a precise hole in the bottom, which would take 24 hours to empty its contents. The container was marked into 24 divisions to estimate the time.
The Antikythera Device, an ancient hand-powered Greek analog computer with a complex mix of gears, was discovered by a diver in 1901 between the islands of Crete and Kythera. The device dates back 2000 years and is believed to have used to calculate the position of the sun, moon, or other celestial bodies.
~ 50 BC
Roman author, architect, civil and military engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, commonly known as Vitruvius, developed the canon of proportions, which became the basis of classical anatomical and architectural aesthetics.
In his Metamorphosis, Roman poet Ovid adapted an enchanting myth about a Cypriot sculptor who fell in love with his own sculpture that has come to life. It is considered one of the first stories of AI.
The Hero of Alexandria, a mathematician, physicist and engineer, wrote a book titled Automata (“moving itself”), which is a collection of different devices used in theater and for religious purposes. He also designed automata that opened the gates on hydraulic principles and an odometer that was mounted on a cart to measure distances. Among his other inventions were a wind-powered organ, animated statues, and the Aeolipile, which is considered the forefather of stream engine.
Yi Xing, a Buddhist monk, and Chinese engineer, built the first model of a mechanical clock. This clock operated by dripping water that powered an iron and bronze system of wheels and gears, which made one full revolution in 24 hours.
Italian painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, and engineer Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans for a mechanical device that looks like an armored knight (humanoid). The mechanisms inside the robot were designed to make the knight sit up, wave its arms, and move its head and jaw if there was a real person inside. Notably, inventors in medieval times often built machines like these to amuse royalty. This robot influenced later anatomical studies.
Hans Bullmann from Nuernberg Germany had created the first real androids in human form. Some of them could play musical instruments. A woman lute player, one of his figures, survived and is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
German mathematician, astronomer, author, and inventor Johannes Muller von Konigsberg built a mechanical eagle made out of wood and iron. He also created a mechanical fly.
In England, the famous astrologer and mathematician John Dee designed a wooden beetle, that could fly.
In his surgical treatise, Les Oeuvres, French surgeon Ambroise Paré published an image displaying the internal mechanisms of an iron hand. It was one of four illustrations of mechanical limbs — two hands, an arm, and one leg.
French inventor, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal invented an early calculator, called the Pascaline, to help his father with taxes. Later, about 50 Pascalines were built. Only a few can be found in museums such as the one on display in the Des Arts et Metiers Museum in Paris.
English academic, diplomat, spy, inventor and mathematician Samuel Morland built a pocket version of the Pascaline, which could work “without charging the memory, disturbing the mind, or exposing the operations to any uncertainty.”
French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created his most famous “The Duck,” a copper mechanical bird that could sit, stand, flap its wings, eat, and splash around in the water. The wings contained over four hundred moving parts. His first invention was a flute player that could play twelve songs.
German Inventor Friedrich von Knauss created an android that can hold a pen and write up to 107 words.
Hungarian author and inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen built “The Turk,” a maple wood box with a mannequin, which appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent.
Swiss clockmakers and inventors Pierre Jaquet-Droz and his son Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz created three dolls, each with a unique function. One can write, another plays music, and the third draws pictures.
French silk weaver and inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard invented an automated loom, controlled by punch cards. Within a decade, it was mass-produced across Europe. Punch cards were later used as an input method for some of the 20th centuries earliest computers.
Friedrich Kaufmann created a mechanical trumpet player, a figure of a man, dressed in a Spanish costume, with height approximately 180 cm. It was able to simultaneously blow two different tones.
English author Mary Shelley published her novel “Frankenstein”, which tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a frightening artificial life form in an unorthodox scientific experiment.
Charles Babbage demonstrated a prototype of his “Difference Engine”, an automatic mechanical calculator designed to tabulate polynomial functions. He is often heralded as the “Father of the Computer” and his work lives on as the foundation for the binary numbering system that is the basis of modern computers.
Edward S. Ellis published the novel “The Steam Man of the Prairies”, which narrates the adventures of a teenaged boy Johnny Brainerd, who constructs a colossal, steam-powered man to pull wheeled carts. Frank Reade Jr. later created the “Electric Man”, which was an electric version of the Steam Man.
America’s greatest inventor Thomas Edison invented Talking Doll, a children’s toy doll that played nursery rhyme. This phonograph doll was introduced in the market in 1890. The doll was a sales failure.
Seward Babbitt of Pittsburgh patented a rotary crane with a motorized gripper for removing hot ingots from furnaces.
Tesla demonstrated his radio-controlled torpedo boat at Madison Square Garden in Ney York City
American author L. Frank Baum invented The Tin Woodman (also known as the Tin Man), a mechanical man in search of a heart in the fictional Land of Oz. The character from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: the Tin Woodsman” is one of the literary world’s most beloved robots and was seen as a symbol for the soullessness of mechanized industry.
Czech playwright Karl Capek introduced the term “robot” in his play called “R.U.R. (Rossums Universal Robot).” The word in Czech comes from the word “robota”, meaning “compulsory labor”. The play ends with robots taking over the earth and destroying their makers.
Film director Fritz Lang released Metropolis, a silent film set in a futuristic urban dystopia. It featured a female robot “Maria”, the first to appear on the silver screen, who takes the shape of a human woman to destroy a labor movement.
English mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing invented the theoretical computer called the Turing Machine. It is a mathematical model of computation that defines an abstract machine, which manipulates symbols on a strip of tape according to a table of rules.
The Westinghouse Electric Corporation built Elektro, a human-like robot that could walk, talk, and smoke. ELEKTRO was first unveiled at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and reappeared at that fair in 1940, with “Sparko”, a robot dog that could bark, sit, and beg to humans.
Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov produced a series of short stories about robots, popularizing the term “robotics” in 40s. Over the next 10 years, he produced more stories that were eventually recompiled into the volume “I, Robot” in 1950. His most important contribution to the history of the robot is the creation of his Three Laws of Robotics, proposed in his short story Runaround in 1942.
Willard Pollard and Harold Roselund designed the first programmable paint-sprayer for the DeVilbiss Company.
American inventor George Devol, best known for creating the first industrial robot Unimate, patented a playback device for controlling machines. The patent for the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm represents the foundation of the modern robotics industry.
British robotics pioneer William Grey Walter creates autonomous machines called Elmer and Elsie that mimic lifelike behavior with very simple circuitry. The robots were capable of finding their charging station when their battery power ran low.
English mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing proposed a test to determine if a machine truly has the power to think for itself. To pass the test, a machine must be indistinguishable from a human during the conversation. It has become known as the ‘Turing Test’.
American mechanical engineer and an early pioneer in the field of robotics, Raymond Goertz designed the first tele-operated articulated arm for the Atomic Energy Commission. This is generally regarded as a major milestone in force feedback (haptic) technology.
George Devol and Joe Engleberger designed the first programmable robot arm, which later became the first industrial robot, completing dangerous and repetitive tasks on an assembly line at General Motors.
George Devol and Joseph Engelberger launched the world’s first robotics company, Unimation. In the 1960s, it is purchased by Condec, which was bought, in part, by industrial manufacturing giant Eaton. Meanwhile, Alan Newell and Herbert Simon created the Logic Theorist, the first “expert system”, used to help solve difficult math problems.
John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky started the Servomechanisms Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), demonstrating computer-assisted manufacturing.
The Soviet Union launched ‘Sputnik’, the first artificial orbiting satellite, marking the beginning of the space race.
Heinrich Ernst developed the MH-1, a motorized and sensitized servomanipulator operated by the TX-O computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
John McCarthy left MIT to start the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University.
The IBM 360 becomes the first computer to be mass-produced.
The Stanford Research Institute created Shakey, the first truly perceptive and mobile robot, capable of navigating obstacles in a room using an early form of computer vision. An artificial intelligence program named ELIZA, which functions as a computer psychologist that manipulates its users’ statements to form questions, was created at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum.
In response to an article by Hurbert Dreyfus in which he declared a computer program could never beat him in a game of chess, Richard Greenblatt built MacHack, a program that plays chess.
Stanley Kubrick released Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as a movie, featuring HAL 9000, an onboard computer in the spaceship Discovery that develops a mind of its own.
Victor Scheinman, a Mechanical Engineering student working in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL), created the Stanford Arm, which became a standard design for robot arms today.
- In 1970, Stanford University unveiled the Stanford Cart, an early experiment in getting machines to navigate autonomously. It got around on four bicycle tires and relied on a car battery for power. It was designed to be a line follower, but could also be controlled from a computer via radio link.
- In 1971, the film Silent Running, starring Bruce Dern and three robot drones Huey, Dewey, and Louie, was released.
- In 1973, Cincinnati Milacron Corporation released the T3, (The Tomorrow Tool), the first commercially available minicomputer-controlled industrial robot, designed by Richard Hohn. In the same year, the AI department at Edinburgh, UK, unveiled Freddy II, a robot that could assemble objects automatically from a heap of parts.
- In 1974, American robotics pioneer Victor Scheinman formed his own company and started marketing the Silver Arm, capable of assembling small parts together using touch sensors.
- In 1975, Victor Scheinman developed a programmable universal manipulation arm (Puma), widely used as an industrial robot.
- In 1976, Shigeo Hirose designed the Soft Gripper at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. It is designed to wrap around an object in snake-like fashion.
- In 1977, George Lucas‘s first Star Wars movie was released, inspiring a new generation of researchers with R2-D2 and C-3PO, the best-known robots in modern culture.
- In 1979, the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University was established. In the same year, Hans Moravec rebuilt the Stanford Cart, adding a more robust vision system, greater autonomy and early version of 3D environment mapping.
- In 1980, Seymour Papert published Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas in which he advocates “constructionism”, or learning through doing.
- In 1981, Takeo Kanade built the direct drive arm, the first to have motors installed directly into the joints of the arm, providing faster and accurate movements.
- In 1982, Ridley Scott film Blade Runner, based on the Philip K. Dick story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was released. It starred Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, a retired blade runner who hunted replicants (illegal mutinous androids).
- In 1984, Terminator was released.
- In 1986, the first LEGO based educational products hit the market. Honda launched a project to build a walking humanoid robot.
- In 1989, a walking robot named Genghis, popularly referred to as the “Genghis gait”, is unveiled by the Mobile Robots Group at MIT.
- In 1994, Carnegie University’s eight-legged walking robot, Dante ll successfully descended into Mt Spur to collect volcanic gas samples. The mission was a success.
- In 1997, Deep Blue, built by IBM, beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov.
- In 1998, LEGO launched its first Robotics Inventions System.
- In 1999, SONY released the first version AIBO, a robotic dog with the ability to learn, entertain and communicate with its owner.
- In 2000, Honda debuted a new humanoid robot ASIMO, the next generation of its series of humanoid robots.
- In 2001, LEGO released the MINDSTORMS Ultimate Builder’s Set. iRobot released the first version of Roomba, the robot vacuum cleaner.
- In 2002, Honda’s Asimo becomes the robot to walk independently with relatively smooth movements. It could also climb the stairs.
- In 2003, NASA launched the “Spirit” and “Opportunity” Mars exploration robot rovers.
- In 2004, Epson released the smallest robot, the Micro Flying Robot, weighing 0.35 ounces (10 grams) and measuring 2.8 inches (70 millimeters) in height.
- In 2005, researchers at Cornell University built the first self-replicating robot.
- In 2006, the second generation of LEGO MINDSTORMS launched, spawning a new generation of robotics enthusiasts at home and in schools.
- In 2016, Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini was released.