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Father of Robotics Dies at Age 90

Joseph F. Engelberger, creator of Unimate, pioneered industrial robotics through his business savvy and incomparable forward thinking.

Joseph F. Engelberger, creator of Unimate, pioneered industrial robotics through his business savvy and incomparable forward thinking.

Joseph F. Engelberger, the “Father of Robotics,” died Tuesday, Dec. 1, in Newton, Conn., at the age of 90. The engineer and entrepreneur changed the manufacturing world through his work with George Devol to launch Unimate, the world’s first industrial robot, in 1961.

Devol filed for the first robot patent in 1954, but it was when he happened across Engelberger at a cocktail party that robotics history was truly set in motion.

“Gee that sound like a very good idea,” Engelberger recalled in a History Channel documentary. “The patent makes sense to me. What are you doing with it?”

Devol replied no one was paying attention to it.

“Let me take a crack at it,” Engelberger offered. Let me see if I can’t find the financing.”

 After meeting with 46 different companies, Engelberger did find the financing. He founded Unimation, Inc. and sold Unimate to General Motors and was placed in a New Jersey plant, moving hot parts from a die-casting machine.

Since then, more than 3 million industrial robots have been sold, changing nearly every aspect of manufacturing, from assembly to material handling.

“Joe Engelberger made some of the most important contributions to technological advancement in the history of the world,” said Jeff Burnstein, President of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), an organization Engelberger was instrumental in founding. “Because of Joe, robotics became a global industry that has revolutionized the way things are made. He was years ahead of his time in his vision of how robots could be designed and used both inside and outside the factory. Joe envisioned robots based on insects and birds decades ago -- developments that we are finally seeing today. Early on, he asked the one question that continues to transform the industry: ‘Do you think a robot could do that?’ Inspired by Joe’s insights, researchers have answered ‘yes’ and developed the amazing robotics applications found worldwide today.”
Engelberger was inducted into the U.S. Manufacturers Hall of Fame in 2009. The Robotics Industries Association named its prestigious annual award the Joseph F. Engelberger Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field of robotics. Other honors Engelberger received over the course of his career include induction into the National Academy of Engineering and the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.

In his later years, Engelberger founded HelpMate Robotics, Inc., which developed a robot courier, and worked on robotic applications for assisting the elderly.

Engelberger was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 26, 1925, to parents Joseph and Irene Engelberger, who had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany. His wife, Marge Engelberger, died in 2007. Joseph Engelberger is survived by his two children, daughter Gay Engelberger and son Jeff Engelberger and grandson Ian Engelberger.

For a more in-depth tribute, please visit Robotic Industries Association “A Tribute to Joseph Engelberger”

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