George Devol: Father of industrial robotics built idea in Bethel

Hi everyone,

Right about the time John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon, George Devol was tackling his own version of manifest destiny.

After seven years of working to build a programmable robot, Devol did exactly that in 1961, when he sold the first Unimate — short for universal automation — to a General Motors plant in New Jersey.

Devol’s robot wasn’t some talking head from a bad science fiction movie. Instead, his robot worked with a mechanical arm mounted on a turret. It performed real-world applications, some with as many as 200 steps.

The Unimate could spot weld cars like nobody’s business. It could pick up red-hot die castings straight from the oven and perform other jobs that were hazardous to humans.

“No one had ever seen anything like it,” said Wilton’s Robert Devol, still as proud of his father today as he was 50 years ago. “No other machine even came close to the versatility and autonomy of the Unimate.”

Or its creator.

George C. Devol Jr., the father of industrial robotics and the co-founder of Unimation Inc., died Aug. 11 at his home in Wilton. He was 99 years old.

Devol’s seminal invention was developed with his partner, Joseph Engelberger, at Unimation Inc., a Bethel-based company on Durant Avenue. Almost overnight in the early 1960s, Unimation became the little company with the big idea.

The Unimate learned its tasks quickly. All the robot needed was for someone to guide it through the sequence of commands to finish the job.

One time.

From then on, the series of steps — the amount of force, the angle of the robotic arm, the elapsed time from one task to the next — all of it was recorded on a magnetic drum that controlled the robotic arm, the hydraulic fluid and other components.

Although Devol is best remembered for his cutting-edge engineering with the Unimate, he had at least another 40 patents to his credit, according to William Wardlow, one of Devol’s five grandchildren.

One of Devol’s earliest inventions was the “Phantom Doorman,” the predecessor of today’s motion-detector doors at department stores and grocery stores everywhere.

Devol also experimented with bar code scanning in the 1930s, long before the technology became commercially viable with the use of lasers.

In addition, Devol explored microwave cooking technology in the 1950s with the advent of the “Speedy Weeny,” a machine that cooked and dispensed a hot dog for 10 cents.

Devol was one part engineer and one part entrepreneur, a man more interested in application than theory.

Even without a high school diploma — he later received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bridgeport — Devol found genius and inspiration in whatever he imagined.

One of the earliest Unimates is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s permanent collection. Even now, a half-century after that first robot was sold to GM, you can still buy Unimates on eBay.

In fact, if you’re handy, there’s a guy in Arizona selling an old Unimate that needs work for $1,700.

To read more about George Devol, check out my “Take on Life” column Sunday.

Exclusively in the print edition of The News-Times.

Brian Koonz