Developer of first industrial robot dies
Joseph Engelberger, considered the father of robotics by the International Federation of Robotics, has died.
He founded the company, Unimation Inc., in 1961, where he developed the first industrial robot, Unimate, launching the global revolution in industrial manufacturing. In the next three year, one million industrial robots were sold worldwide.
“We have lost more than a giant in our industry,” said Joe Gemma, President of IFR. “Joseph Engelberger was central in creating an industry that had a profound effect on our everyday lives and manufacturing technologies. His legacy will continue to inspire us all and future generations.”
The Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the American branch of the global association, inaugurated one of its highest robotics prizes in the name of its pioneer: Since 1977, the Joseph F. Engelberger Award has been bestowed annually in recognition of outstanding achievements in the areas of technological development, applications, education and leadership in the field of robotics. One of the winners of this prize, Arturo Baroncelli, IFR President (retd.) and member of the IFR Executive Board, recalls: “I had the chance to meet Joe in Tokyo some years ago. We spent many hours talking about everything. He was a man of such wisdom and wide culture, open-minded, thoughtful and humane. I will never forget him.”
Engelberger was both engineer and entrepreneur. He worked closely with the inventor George Devol, in developing the first industrial robots. General Motors began deploying the new technology in automotive production as long ago as 1961, using it to achieve a previously unforeseen level of precision and efficiency. Industrial robots swiftly spread throughout the world. The innovations Engelberger introduced were a major factor in the rise of the Japanese auto industry, where the use of robotics was enthusiastically embraced in the post-war era.
“Joe made some of the most important contributions to technological advancement in the history of the world,” said Jeff Burnstein, President of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the US robotics trade association Engelberger was instrumental in founding. “Because of Joe, robotics became a global industry. He was years ahead of his time, envisioning robots based on insects and birds decades ago – developments that we’re finally seeing today. His question, ‘Do you think a robot could do that?’ inspired researchers to answer ‘yes’ and develop the amazing robotics applications found worldwide today.”
“Joe Engelberger galvanised the construction of robots around the world”, says Patrick Schwarzkopf, member of the IFR Executive Board. “His global perspective and entrepreneurial creativeness are still the benchmark for today. Engelberger was essential to the breakneck progress we are currently experiencing, as we move into a new technological era. His death is a huge loss to us all.”
Apart from the area of industrial robots, Engelberger also played a critical role in the development of service robots. Following the sale of his company, Unimation to Westinghouse in 1982, he concentrated on new technologies designed for the health sector. With his new company, HelpMate Robotics, he advanced the construction of a mobile robot for hospitals. Engelberger also promoted the application of robotic technology in the area of nursing care.
Engelberger was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1925, the son of a German immigrant. He studied physics and electrotechnology at Columbia University. Throughout his life, he was an indefatigable ambassador of robotics. Alongside his groundwork, he also published numerous books and specialist articles, even further advancing the development and use of robotic technology in industry, space exploration as well as the everyday lives of people. His pioneering work brought him numerous honorary doctorates and awards. In 2009, he was inducted into the American Manufacturing Hall of Fame.
In 1992, the Sunday Times of London profiled Engelberger as one of the “1000 Makers of the 20th Century”. Engelberger died on 1 December 2015 at his house in Newtown, Connecticut.