History's 10 Most Influential Robots

It wouldn't be right if GeekTech didn't do something for National Robotics Week, and if there is one thing this blog loves, it's robots. Robots are all around us, from the coffee machine in the kitchen at home, to the assembly lines in factories at work. But where did robots first come from? Which were the most significant in delivering the kind of machines we have today?

While there are hundreds of incredible robots to choose from throughout the ages, here is a list of just a few of the most significant or memorable robots throughout history, arranged in chronological order.

Around 350 BC: The Pigeon

That's right--the first robot is really that old. Archytas, the Greek philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, and statesman, may very well have laid down the principle of mathematical mechanics. Why? One of his many projects was a wooden mechanical bird, dubbed The Pigeon, which was propelled by steam and could apparently fly for up to 200 meters. This feat might not only be the first robot ever created, but also one of the first flying contraptions.

1495: Leonardo's Robot

A model of the interior and exterior of the knight. [Photo: Erik Möller]
Even Leonardo Da Vinci is responsible for part of robotics history--he made the first human-like bot. In 1495, he created a robotic knight which, according to sketches, would stand, sit, lift his visor, and move its arms.

Using the original sketches, modern-day designers managed to re-create the robot. The replica can perform all the aforementioned movements, which indicates that the original probably could too.

1738: The Duck

French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson created a number of autonomous robots in his time, but The Duck is one of his his more revered works.

Frédéric Vidoni's replica of The Digesting Duck [Photo: Philippe Sayous]

The mechanical duck had over 400 different parts, which isn't too surprising considering what it could do. It could flap its wings, and it could eat, digest, and subsequently defecate. That's a pretty impressive robot!

How Caucanson managed to make the robot digest and defecate by installing various compartments to chemically decompose the grain. Only now, 274 years later, do we see modern-day robots with the similar abilities, such as Ecobot--although Ecobot is purely one big digestive system, unlike The Duck, which performs other fun "tasks".

Unfortunately, nobody knows what happened to the Digesting Duck. There is, however, a museum in Grenoble that has a replica on display, made by a clock-maker.

1898: Tesla's Remote-Controlled Boat

While you probably know Nikola Tesla more for his incredible electric coils, he actually has another accomplishment next to his name in the field of robots.

When Nikola was looking for a way to demonstrate his wireless transmission system (what we now know as radio waves), he placed an iron boat in the water at Madison Square Garden during a conference and controlled it with a remote--the boat simply picked up the radio signals from the remote and carried out the commands from Nikola. Sadly, at the time, nobody quite realized how significant the remote-controlled boat would be to future robotics, toys, radio, and other devices we take for granted today.

1962: The Unimate

In the 1960s, researchers put a lot of work into developing robotic arms, but one of the most important was The Unimate arm. It was one of the first industrial robots, and was fitted on General Motors' assembly line to reduce the likelihood of injuries and deaths on the production floor. The arm would stack pieces of hot die-cast metal and weld the parts to car bodies. Unimate is now listed in the Robot Hall of Fame with the likes of R2-D2 and HAL.

1966: Shakey the Robot

Shakey was the first free-thinking robot. [Photo: Marshall Astor]
Shakey the Robot by SRI International was one of the first truly successful artificial intelligence robots. It was capable of understanding its own actions--that is, if you gave Shakey a task to complete, it could break down how to complete it by itself, unlike most other robots of the time, which needed specific instructions.

Shakey demonstrated its ability to think and then react by navigating itself around rooms and corridors, turning lights on and off, opening and closing doors, and pushing certain objects around. It is now happily retired and on display in Mountain View's Computer History Museum.

1989: Genghis

Ever wondered which robot was one of the first to walk properly? Check out Genghis. This six-legged autonomous bot by the Mobile Robots Group over at MIT Labs was not only known for its walking ability, but also for how quickly and cheaply it was produced. However, it did need four microprocessors, 22 sensors, and 12 servomotors to function.

The way it walked on its six legs also coined (and some other hexapod robots) the term "the Genghis Gait". See its first steps in the video below:

1997: NASA Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner

Click the image to zoom in!
NASA, of course, has had its fair share of incredible robots, but one that really stands out is the Mars Pathfinder mission and its rover, Sojourner.

Its main purpose was to demonstrate the kind of technology required to send an efficient, free-ranging robot to Mars, but in a relatively cost-effective way. The Pathfinder managed to enter Mars's atmosphere with a parachute and airbags for protection, and the Sojourner sent plenty of useful data about the Red Planet back to Earth for later use.

What's more, both machines outlived their design's estimated life--the Pathfinder by three times, and the Sojourner by almost 12! Check out a full size replica of the Sojourner to see just how small it was.

[Photo: Bruce Irving on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

1998: Lego Mindstorms

This wouldn't be a GeekTech feature without a bit of Lego. In all seriousness, though, Mindstorms kits, a series of Lego set that contain programmable software and hardware, were one of the cheapest and easiest ways for anyone to make their own robot. Mindstorms kits were inspired by Seymour Papert's book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas, in which the mathematician recommends the simple theory of learning by doing.

2000: ASIMO

Say hello to ASIMO! [Photo: Honda]
Back in 1986, Honda announced it would undertake a project to create a human-like robot capable of not only co-existing with humans, but also eventually surpass their abilities for the benefit of society (which may not be the brightest idea).

A few prototypes later, Honda announced the ASIMO, one of the most impressive machines in robotics. It can emulate different human gaits and turns on most surfaces, use its arms, talk and listen, see, and recognize people or objects. Of course, the ASIMO still has a way to go before it can surpass human abilities, but Honda already has plenty of ideas for future builds.

Do you think there is another robot that should be on this list? Feel free to extend this timeline in the comments below!

[Top photo: "Here Be Robots" by Ivana on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

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