George Devol

We have to face the fact that countries are going to lose jobs to robotics. The only question that needs to be answered is which country will create and own the best robotic technology and have the infrastructure necessary to enable it.
Mark Cuban

George Charles Devol (1912–2011)
George Charles Devol (1912–2011)

The first industrial robot in the world, called Unimate, was made in the 1950s by the American inventor and entrepreneur George Charles Devol (1912–2011). Devol’s patent for the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm (see US pat. Nr. 2988237) represents the foundation of the modern robotics industry and earned him the title “Grandfather of Robotics”.

Devol was focusing on manipulators and magnetic recording patents since the 1940s, but he took note of the introduction of automation into factories. In the early 1950s, Devol licensed his digital magnetic recording device to Remington Rand and became manager of their magnetics department. There he worked with a team to develop his magnetic recording system for business data applications, and on developing the first high-speed printing systems. While the magnetic recording system proved too slow for business data, Devol’s invention was re-purposed as a machine control that would eventually become the “brains” of his Unimate robot.

George Devol demonstrating his robot Unimate
George Devol and Joseph Engelberger demonstrating their robot Unimate

After applying for his seminal patent in 1954 for a robotic arm that could move with six degrees of freedom and store step-by-step digital commands on a drum or other medium, Devol searched for a company willing to give him financial backing to develop his robot. He talked with many major corporations in the United States during his search and obtained an audience with a partner in the firm Manning, Maxwell, and Moore in Stratford, Connecticut. Joseph Frederick Engelberger (1925-2015), chief of engineering in the company’s aircraft products division was very interested, and Devol agreed to license his patent and some future patents in the field to the company. But the company was sold that year and its aircraft division was slated to be closed. Engelberger sought a backer to buy out the aircraft division and found one in Consolidated Diesel Electronic (Condec), which agreed to finance the continued development of the robot under a new division, Unimation Incorporated, with Engelberger as its president.

George C. Devol, right, and Joseph F. Engelberger are served by the Unimate
George C. Devol, right, and Joseph F. Engelberger are served by the Unimate

The first Unimate prototypes were hydraulically powered and controlled by vacuum tubes, though later versions used transistors. Most off-the-shelf components available in the late 1950s, such as digital encoders, were inadequate for the Unimate. With Devol’s guidance, a team of skilled engineers at Unimation designed and machined practically every part in the first Unimates. Devol also invented a variety of new technologies, including a unique rotating magnetic drum memory system with data parity controls.

The company spent about $5 million to develop the first Unimate robot. In 1960, Devol personally sold the first Unimate, which was shipped in 1961 to General Motors, which used the machine for die-casting handling and spot welding. Soon companies such as Chrysler, Ford, and Fiat saw the necessity for large Unimate purchases. In 1966, after many years of market surveys and field tests, full-scale production began in Connecticut. Unimation’s first production robot was a material handling robot and was soon followed by robots for welding and other applications. In 1975, Unimation showed its first profit. In 1978, the PUMA (Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly) robot was developed by Unimation from Vicarm (Victor Scheinman) and with support from General Motors.

Biography of George Devol

George Devol and his wife Evelyn
George Devol and his wife Evelyn in the middle 1940s

George Charles Devol Jr. was born into wealth in Louisville, Kentucky, on 20 February 1912. He was the son of George Charles Devol Sr. (1883-1958) and Elsa Jane (Vance) Devol (1882-1949), who married in 1908. The Devols were a famous business family from New Albany, Indiana, owners of ironworks and dealers in stoves, tin, copper and ironware, plumbing, and gas fitting. George Charles Jr. had a younger brother—John Vance (1918–1998).

George became interested in electricity and machines at an early age, showing curiosity towards everything from boats to planes to any sort of engine. Unlike many early innovators in the computing world, Devol didn’t have much of a scholarly interest in maths or science. He was more concerned with how things worked, how they didn’t, and how they could possibly work better. Towards this end, he read everything he could about mechanical devices, besides building and working with as many interesting devices as he could manage.

George attended Riordan Prep and gained some practical experience helping run the school’s electric light plant. He didn’t go to an engineering school upon graduation but started a company. In 1932, Devol formed United Cinephone to produce variable area recording directly onto film for the new sound motion pictures (“talkies”). However, he later learned that companies like RCA and Western Electric were working in the same area, and discontinued the product. During that time, Devol developed and patented industrial lighting and invented the automatic opening door.

In 1939, Devol applied for a patent for proximity controls for use in laundry press machines, based on a radio frequency field. This control would automatically open and close laundry presses when workers approached the machines. Around that time, Devol approached Sperry Gyroscope to pitch his ideas on radar technology and was hired as manager of the Special Projects Department, which developed radar devices and microwave test equipment.

George Charles Devol (1912–2011)
George Charles Devol (1912–2011)

Later in the war, Devol approached Auto-Ordnance Company regarding products that the company could produce aside from their primary product line, which were Thompson submachine guns. In 1943, he organized General Electronics Industries in Greenwich, Connecticut, which produced counter-radar devices until the end of the war. In 1946 Devol resigned from Auto Ordinance and joined RCA. After a short stint as eastern sales manager of electronics products, which he felt “wasn’t his ball of wax”, Devol left RCA to develop ideas that eventually led to the patent application for the first industrial robot. In 1946, he applied for a patent on a magnetic recording system for controlling machines and a digital playback device for machines. Devol was part of the team that developed the first commercial use of microwave oven technology, the Speedy Weeny, which automatically cooked and dispensed hotdogs in places such as Grand Central Terminal.

Devol also obtained patents on visual sensors for robots, textile presses, motor generators, coincidence detectors, coaxial connectors, non-refillable containers, and magnetostrictive manipulators or “micro-robotics”, another field he created. He was elected to honorary member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (1985), inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame (2011), and a Member of the Automation Hall of Fame.

George Devol married in 1938 Evelyn Ruth Jahelka (7 Dec 1915-3 Jan 2003), and they had two daughters and two sons: Christine (born 1942), George C. (b. 1945), Robert (b. 1949), and Suzanne (b. 1951). Devol died of natural causes at age 99 on 11 August 2011, at his home in Wilton, Connecticut.