In continuation of our Throwback Thursday series, where we revisit the lives of distinguished figures from the manufacturing industry, we are remembering the Father of Modern Robotics Joseph Frederick Engelberger this week. He was an American physicist, engineer, and entrepreneur who was responsible for the birth of one the most important and impactful industries, gaining him global recognition for his contribution as the Father of Robotics.
Engelberger was born on July 26, 1925, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were German immigrants who had shifted to Connecticut during the Great Depression. For his college education, Engelberger later returned to New York City. It was there in New York that he discovered the works of Isaac Asimov, an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction. Engelberger became a great fan of his “I, Robot” series of short stories.
This interest in robotics motivated Engelberger to pursue a Bachlelor’s degree in physics and a Master’s degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University. He enrolled in the US Navy’s officer training program to fund his education. In 1946, he joined Manning, Maxwell & Moore and soon became Chief of Engineering in their aircraft products division.
In 1956, Engelberger met George Devol at a cocktail party. Devol had invented and patented the industrial robotic arm. Engelberger was impressed with it and immediately recognized the significance of the robotic arm. He went on to buy the licensed technology from Manning, Maxwell & Moore and upon securing financial backing, founded a robotics company called Unimation Inc. Unimation was the company which built the world’s first industrial robot, the Unimate. A factory of General Motors in New Jersey was the first one to install Unimate which was used in a die-casting operation in 1961. Westinghouse bought Unimation for $107 million in 1983, and it is now a French holding.
Taking inspiration from the need to help out his elderly parents, Engelberger’s interest later shifted to give robots a spectrum of sensory perception, to work with humans in service activities. To achieve this, in 1984 he founded another company called Transitions Research Corp. which then became HelpMate Robotics Inc. Its first successful service robot, HelpMate, was a robotic hospital courier. HelpMate Robotics was sold to Cardinal Health in 1999, which further merged it into its subsidiary Pyxis Corp.
In an interview with Engelberger way back in 1983, The New Scientist magazine described him as an all American guy from his crew-cut and bow tie to his slip-on shoes. “He exudes warmth, humor, and joie de vivre. Zest for life translates as ‘robotics is fun’ for this man, who is more likely to quote the classics than statistics”, the magazine further summarized him.
In 1992 he was named among “The 1000 Makers of the 21st Century” by The Sunday Times. He even got the Japan Prize, the highest Japanese technology honor, for the establishment of the robot industry in 1997. In his lifetime, Engelberger was the recipient of several honorary degrees and numerous international awards. He also authored several books like Robotics in Practice and Robotics in Service to name a few and various articles on robotics. Throughout his life, Engelberger continued to work in the field of robotics.
He died on the 1st of December 2015 in Newtown, Connecticut at the age of 90.
Wishing to inspire young minds, Engelberger said, in an interview for SME magazine, “I would recommend robotics to anyone to start. Remember, I started young, and this industry is still young—and there’s so many opportunities. You know, from my elbow to the end of my hand, there’s 30 articulations that I can mentally control, and a few that I can’t control. There’s a challenge still to come up with so much more. What evolution, or if you want, God has produced, is not easily replicated, so there’s going to be opportunity all the time. So it’s not a dead-end”.
With this message, we hope to encourage millennials to take STEM education and building a successful career in the field of manufacturing.
If you know about any of such inspiring figures from history, share with us and we will share their story in this series.