Visionary. Pioneer. Entrepreneur. Tireless advocate. Humanitarian. Joseph Engelberger, the Father of Robotics, was all of these things. Joe passed away on December 1 in his home in Newtown, CT, at the age of 90.
No other man has so influenced modern manufacturing and economics than Joe Engelberger. An avid reader of the novels of Isaac Asimov, Joe was fascinated by robots and recognized the programmable articles transfer patent that inventor George Devol described at that famous 1956 cocktail party as a robotic capability. The next morning, when Joe woke up with a hangover, reviewed the scribbles on the cocktail napkin and was still convinced that what they had discussed was an excellent idea, Joe knew he was on to something big. Joe purchased the patent, formed Unimation, and went looking for financing to bring this idea to life.
Joe’s vision for Unimate, a robot intended to spare workers from dull, dirty and dangerous tasks, was so compelling that it drove him to knock on the doors of 46 potential customers to find people who believed that such a thing could be built. It took years of development and financing, but Unimate became a reality in 1961. While General Motors bought the first robot that year to take red-hot parts out of die-cast molds, few other companies were willing to take the risk.
What I loved about Joe was his tenacity. He kept pushing. After creating Unimate, Unimation began working on grippers that enabled robots to be used to weld, drill, spray and grip. Bit by bit, Joe proved the utility of robots, breaking down the obstacles that kept companies from adopting robots. In a widespread media campaign to educate the public on the benefits of robots, Joe and Unimate appeared on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show — his signature bow tie firmly in place — in 1963. His objective: to prove to Johnny and the whole world that Unimate could putt better than Johnny, pour a beer better than Johnny, and lead the orchestra.
Joe pushed to convince management and unions that robots did not destroy jobs, but rather, took the jobs that humans didn’t want and actually created new jobs building and maintaining robots that were much more fulfilling. Still, to get companies to adopt robots, Joe rented Unimate or sold it at a loss, going in the red for the first 14 years of operation. Although American companies were slow to adopt Joe’s vision, Japan was focused on the long range and recognized how robotics could enable them to restore their economy. And, as robots were adopted, manufacturing processes were permanently revolutionized, particularly in the automotive sector — all thanks to Joe.
When Joe sold Unimation to Westinghouse in 1982, he didn’t stop thinking about robots. He had an endless curiosity about the world. His one question, “Do you think a robot could do that?” led Joe to examine service robots and how robotics could help in hospitals or to maintain the independence of the elderly or people with disabilities. In 1984, he founded Transitions Research Corporation and introduced HelpMate, a mobile robot hospital courier used in more than 100 hospitals worldwide. But here again, he was years ahead of his time imagining alternatives that society was not ready to embrace. Joe envisioned robots based on insects and birds decades ago — developments that we are finally seeing today — and was bitterly disappointed at how slowly the health care industry was to embrace robots that would provide greater independence and health for many people.
Notably, Joe’s enthusiasm, his energy, his drive was not only for his own companies. Joe addressed Congress, wrote books, and spoke often of how robotics could make a difference in the world in the factory, in hospitals, and in people’s homes. Perhaps his largest gift to the industry was his involvement in the founding of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). That first meeting in Chicago took place solely due to the force of his personality. No one else could have convinced all of the robotics competitors to come together under one roof, all in the aim of creating an association that furthered our industry. And through the continued work of the RIA, Joe continues to be a compelling force for all of us.
Because of Joe, our world, our economy, our way of life is immensely better. Joe Engelberger used his vision to create a better way, and in doing so inspired thousands of roboticists around the world. Thanks for leading the way in so many ways, Joe. You are greatly missed.
Jeff Burnstein is the President of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), the parent group of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA).