The history of robotics is intricately intertwined in the history of both robots and computers. For as long as there have been robots and automation, robotics has existed in one form of another, and for as long as computers have begun to program and give instruction to inanimate objects, so has robotics developed.
The idea of a robot can be found in many of the ancient myths and legends from around the world. The Greeks believed that Hephaestus created mechanical servants to assist him as he worked. Jewish legends talk of clay Golems, while Norse myths also tell the tales of clay assistants.
Myths and legends aside, the actual automatons of the ancient world were really like robot toys, simple machines that could do a single simple task. In China (3rd Century BC), it started with Yan Shi's automaton that resembled a human, and could sing and walk. In Europe (400 BC), Arychtas of Tarentum created a mechanical pigeon that could fly through the power of steam.
Production of these automatons continued for many years, with scientists or inventors from all over the world coming up with ways to create autonomous machines that could be of use to human living or daily life. Throughout the history of robotics, we find many attempts to create functional automatons that serve a purpose. Prior to the Renaissance, the Clepsydra, an automated stopwatch, was invented to help time men visiting brothels, ensuring that everyone received an equal amount of time.
Renaissance & the Industrial Revolution
During the Renaissance, scientists and inventors further pushed the basic principles of robotics. Leonardo da Vinci created the plans or drawings for a mechanical knight, thought it isn't known whether he built it or not. After da Vinci, between 1500 and 1800, most of the automatons created stuck to the “theme” of robot toys. Inventors created machines that could play music, draw, write, walk or act. One inventor, Jacques de Vaucanson created a digesting duck
The mechanical toy automatons were created and developed all over the world, from Japan to Europe.
Shortly after the Renaissance came the Industrial Revolution. It was during this period of history that brought about the beginnings of the more modern concepts of robotics. Men invented machines that helped them perform a variety of tasks, most of which were for the manufacturing of products. At first these machines used fossil fuels, such as coal. However, with the introduction of electricity, the machines were made more efficient, cleaner, and more compact, paving the way for the many modern robots in industry.
In the early 1920s, futurists believed that they would be able to create humanoid robots that could almost think like humans. This idea permeated literature, movies, and other media. It was actually through a play, written by Karel Capek did the word robot come to be. It was derived from the Czech word robota which means “forced labor.” Later, in a story written by Isaac Asimov, the word robotics was coined, somewhat formally beginning the history of robotics.
In the 1960s, robots left the world of literature and movies. The Unimation company created the Unimate, and in 1962, this simple industrial robot arm started its job on an assembly line for General Motors. It was the first of the digitally controlled industrial robots. Soon after Unimate followed Stanford's robotic arm known as the Rancho Arm, which was developed to help handicapped patients.
During this time, the development of computers and programming was also happening rapidly. In a conference at Dartmouth College, the term “artificial intelligence” was coined, starting the branch of computer science that aims to create intelligent machines. This further propelled the development of robots.
The four decades that followed saw incredible development in computers and robotics. Never in the history of robotics did the science develop so quickly. Today's modern robots can drive trains, defuse bombs, and finally (as was always dreamed) do household chores! It is not yet over, though. The ultimate goal is to create universal robots, machines that can do almost anything humans can do, maybe even more.