Father of modern robotics dies at 90

Joseph F. Engelberger developed the first industrial robots
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Unimate, the first industrial robot, was installed in a General Motors plant in 1961. Joseph F. Engelberger, founder of Unimation, the company that developed that robot and ushered in the era of industrial automation, died peacefully at his home yesterday morning. He was 90 years old.

Born July 26, 1925 in Brooklyn, New York, Engelberger earned a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University. He founded Unimation, Inc. in 1956 and worked closely with inventor George Devol on the robot that would earn him the moniker "The Father of Robotics."

Engelberger and Unimate inventor George Devol are served drinks by one of their creations

"Joe made some of the most important contributions to technological advancement in the history of the world," remembers Jeff Burnstein, President of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), a robotics trade association that Engelberger helped found. "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."

After selling Unimation, Engelberger founded HelpMate Robotics, which focused on assistive robots for hospitals and the elderly. In later life he became an industry advocate, author, and international ambassador for robotics.

Recalls former RIA president: "Joe was the Henry Ford for the robotics business and a tremendous international ambassador. It was Joe's personal drive and commitment to make forming Robotics Industries Association a reality along with his pioneering talents that convinced his competitors that RIA was needed for the future of manufacturing."

The RIA has put together an interactive tribute to Engelberger, which will be of interest to anyone with a curiosity about the development of robotics over the last half-century.

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