The history of robots has its origins in the ancient world. Concepts akin to a robot can be found as long ago as the 4th century BC when the Greek mathematician Archytas of Tarentum postulated a mechanical bird he called “The Pigeon”, which was propelled by steam.
One of the first recorded designs of a humanoid robot was made by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) in around 1495. Leonardo’s notebooks, rediscovered in the 1950s, contain detailed drawings of a mechanical knight in armour which was able to sit up, wave its arms and move its head and jaw.
Around 1700, many automata were built, some of which could act, draw, fly, or play music; some of the most famous works of the period were created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737, including an automaton flute player, a tambourine player, and his most famous work, “The Digesting Duck“. Vaucanson’s duck was powered by weights and could imitate a real duck by flapping its wings (there were over 400 parts in each of the wings alone), eat grain, digest it, and defecate by excreting matter stored in a hidden compartment.
The Japanese craftsman Hisashige Tanaka, known as “Japan’s Edison”, created an array of incredibly complex mechanical toys, some of which could serve tea, fire arrows drawn from a quiver, or even paint a Japanese kanji character.
The first humanoid robot was a soldier with a trumpet, made in 1810 by Friedrich Kaufmann in Dresden, Germany. The robot was on display until at least April 30, 1950.
In 1928, one of the first humanoid robots was exhibited at the annual exhibition of the Model Engineers Society in London. Invented by W. H. Richards, the robot – named Eric – consisted of an aluminium suit of armour with eleven electromagnets and one motor powered by a 12-volt power source. The robot could move its hands and head and could be controlled by remote control or voice control.
In 1939, the humanoid robot known as Elektro appeared at the World’s Fair. It was 2.1 m tall, weighing 120 kg, it could walk by voice command, speak about 700 words (using a 78-rpm record player), smoke cigarettes, blow up balloons, and move its head and arms. The body consisted of a steel gear cam and motor skeleton covered by an aluminium skin.
The first electronic autonomous robots with complex behaviour were created by William Grey Walter of the Burden Neurological Institute at Bristol, England in 1948 and 1949.
The first digitally operated and programmable robot was invented by George Devol in 1954 and was ultimately called the Unimate. This later laid the foundations of the modern robotics industry. Devol sold the first Unimate to General Motors in 1960, and it was installed in 1961 in a plant in Trenton, New Jersey to lift hot pieces of metal from a die casting machine and stack them. Devol’s patent for the first digitally operated programmable robotic arm represents the foundation of the modern robotics industry.
In 1969 Mechanical Engineering student Victor Scheinman created the Stanford Arm, recognised as the first electronic computer-controlled robotic arm.
The first mobile robot capable of reasoning about its surroundings, Shakey, was built in 1970 by the Stanford Research Institute. Shakey combined multiple sensor inputs, including TV cameras, laser rangefinder, and bump sensors to navigate.
The biomimetic robot RoboTuna was built by doctoral student David Barrett at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1996 to study how fish swim in water. RoboTuna is designed to float and to resemble a bluefin tuna.
In 1999, Sony introduced the AIBO, a robotic dog capable of interacting with humans; the first models released in Japan sold out in 20 minutes.
Honda revealed the most advanced result of their humanoid project in 2000, named ASIMO. ASIMO can run, walk, communicate with humans, recognise faces, environment, voices and posture, and interact with its environment.
On October 25, 2017, at the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh, a robot called Sophia was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship, becoming the first robot ever to have a nationality.