A Brief History of Robots

Introduction to robotics and the famous first robots.

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By definition, a robot is an automatic device that performs functions normally ascribed to humans or a machine in the form of a human.

The Word Robot Is Coined

The acclaimed Czech playwright, Karel Capek, made famous the word robot. The word is used in the Czech language to describe forced labor or serf. Capek introduced the word in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) first performed in Prague in 1921. Capek's play presents a paradise in which robot machines initially provide many benefits for humans, but also bring an equal amount of blight in the form of unemployment and social unrest.

Origins of Robotics 

The word robotics comes from Runaround, a short story published in 1942 by Isaac Asimov. One of the first robots Asimov wrote about was a robotic therapist. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor named Joseph Weizenbaum wrote the Eliza program in 1966 as a modern counterpart to Asimov's fictional character. Weizenbaum initially programmed Eliza with 240 lines of code to simulate a psychotherapist. The program answered questions with more questions.

Isaac Asimov's Four Laws of Robot behavior

Asimov created the four laws of robot behavior, a kind of cyber laws all robots had to obey and represents a fundamental part of positronic robotic engineering. The Isaac Asimov FAQ states, "Asimov claimed that the laws were originated by John W. Campbell in a conversation they had on December 23, 1940. Campbell in turn maintained that he picked them out of Asimov's stories and discussions, and that his role was merely to state them explicitly. The first story to explicitly state the three laws was 'Runaround,' which appeared in the March 1942 issue of 'Astounding Science Fiction.' Unlike the "Three Laws," however, the Zeroth Law is not a fundamental part of positronic robotic engineering, is not part of all positronic robots, and, in fact, requires a very sophisticated robot to even accept it."

Here are the laws:

  • Law Zeroth: A robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
  • Law One: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, unless this would violate a higher order law.
  • Law Two: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with a higher order law.
  • Law Three: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with a higher order law.

Machina Speculatrix

Grey Walter's "Machina Speculatrix" of the 1940's was an early example of robot technology and was recently restored to its working glory after being lost for some years. Walter's "Machina" were small robots that looked like turtles. The restored cyber turtles are freewheeling and light-seeking creatures propelled by two small electric motors. They roam in any direction with sensor-contacts to avoid obstacles. A photoelectric cell mounted on the steering column helps the turtles search and aim towards the light.


In 1956, a historic meeting occurred between George Devol and Joseph Engelberger. The two met over cocktails to discuss the writings of Isaac Asimov. The result of this meeting was that Devol and Engelberger agreed to work on creating a robot together. Their first robot (the Unimate) served at a General Motors plant working with heated die-casting machines. Engelberger started a manufacturing company called Unimation, which became the first commercial company to produce robots. Devol wrote the necessary patents for Unimation.