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Chapter 1. What’s in a Name? > Great Moments in Robot History

Great Moments in Robot History

The events in the evolution of robo-kind that we’ve discussed so far only scratch the surface. There are more, so many more. We’ll detail some of these other advances in later chapters. But in the meantime, let’s fast forward at 4x speed through some other significant milestones along the road to our robotic future.

  • Third Century B.C.— Aristotle gets the robo-ball rolling by penning these words: “If every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others...if the shuttle could weave, and the pick touch the lyre, without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not need servants.”

  • Eighteenth Century— Automatons, clockwork “robots” built by inventors and watchmakers in France, Germany, and elsewhere, become a courtly rage. These mechanically animated dolls can play musical instruments, draw, and quack like a duck (well, the duck one could, anyway). Some of these automatons even had different “programs” (interchangeable cam sets) that would alter their actions.

  • 1801— Joseph Jacquard invents a “programmable loom” that operates via punch cards.

  • 1898— Nicola Tesla, inventor of the induction motor, alternating current (AC) transmission, and the actual inventor of radio (and a bunch of other stuff he’s not given credit for) patents the teleautomaton. Children around the world will come to know it as the remote-controlled toy. The stage is set for a future of Battlebots.

  • 1940— Westinghouse’s Electro and Sparko spokesbots entertain crowds at the World’s Fair in New York. These animatronic wonders marked the first time that electric motors were used to power and actuate robots.

  • 1956— MIT’s John McCarthy coins the term “Artificial Intelligence” during a Dartmouth computer workshop.


    For a fun trip into an alternate universe of Victorian-age steam-powered robots, check out Paul Guinan’s awesome Robots of the Victorian Era (www.bigredhair.com/robots/).

    And, no, these are not real. It’s all just in good fun.

  • 1960— The Johns Hopkins “Beast” begins prowling the university’s hallways. Similar in functionality to Grey Walter’s Elmer and Elsie, it sports more complex sonar navigation and can seek out wall sockets when its Beastly batteries get that empty feeling.

  • 1973— Tokyo’s Waseda University, under the direction of Ichiro Kato, develops WABOT-1, the first humanoid walking robot. Honda is impressed and secretly begins work on its own humanoid (which will become the infamous P3).

  • 1976— Robot arms in space! Viking 1 and 2 Martian landers are outfitted with robotic arms first developed at Stanford University.

  • 1979— The Stanford Cart is rebuilt by a young Hans Moravec (see Heroes of the Robolution trading cards, Chapter 2). Work had actually begun on the cart in 1965. It is billed as the first computer-controlled autonomous vehicle after it successfully crosses a chair-filled room without human intervention.

  • 1982— The Heath Company begins sales of their HERO 1 personal robot kit.

  • 1983— Androbot, Inc., a company founded by Nolan Bushnell of Atari Computers fame, releases TOPO I, a personal home robot, followed by BOB (Brains on Board), a surprisingly sophisticated robot for its time. Androbots’ futuristic good looks, shared by many imitators that followed, spur a small home robot boom. But ultimately, given computer tech of the time, the bots do not live up to expectations and the boom goes bust.

  • 1984— Red Whittaker’s team from Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) sends its RRV robot into the irradiated landscape of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant site and the “field robotics” industry (mobile robots doing actual work) is born.

  • 1994— CMU’s six-legged extreme environments robot, aptly named Dante II, successfully climbs into the Mt. Spurr volcano in Alaska.


    If you’re interested in finding out more about any of the robots listed in this timeline, pop their names into Google (www.google.com) or your favorite search engine, and you’re likely to get a motherload of info.

  • 1997— IBM’s Deep Blue computer beats world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a match.

  • 1997— Shockingly, the Mars Pathfinder actually lands. Its Sojourner Rover delights and amazes armchair astronauts around the world, who watch near real-time coverage on TV and the Internet. Suddenly, kids think robots are cool again.

  • 1997— Honda stuns the world with its P3 humanoid robot. Unnerved skeptics swear it must be a child in a plastic space suit. It isn’t.

  • 1999— Sony begins selling its AIBO robotic pet. The product is almost affordable and extremely sophisticated. Anti-cutesy Web site critics the world over shudder at the thought of personal AIBO pet pages (there are now hundreds).

  • 2000Battlebots premieres on Comedy Central. Gearheads all over America head to the garage to cannibalize the family mower.



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