Robotic Pioneers: The 10 Most Important Robots in History

They are metal, ridged, have a monotone voice, come in all shapes and sizes, are often portrayed as cute and comedic in movies, and sometimes evil in some science-fiction flicks. While robots have been around for what seems like forever, the public is still fascinated by what they can do and how they continue to evolve.

Robots have played a huge role in helping mankind. They are currently used to deal with repetitive actions that help to build anything from cars to electronics to candy. They also can be used as substitutes placed in roles that might be too dangerous for humans to partake.

Considering how far robots have come since their basic beginnings, time to take a stroll through history. Let’s look at some of the greatest robotic pioneers of yesteryear that have evolved into the robots we are familiar with today.

1. Steam-Powered Pigeon

There were robots during the Ancient Greece era? Was there anything this civilization couldn’t do? Apparently not.

While the very first robot in history is hard to nail down, many point to Archytas as the first inventor. Somewhere between 400 to 350 BCE, this ancient Greek Mathematician built a steam-powered wooden pigeon. This pigeon could fly along a wire suspension well beyond 650 feet before it would run out of steam.

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2. Programmable Cart

While Leonardo Da Vinci was an accomplished artist, the artist had a major interest in science, mathematics, and engineering. This interest led to many inventions.

In fact, Da Vinci mapped out a self-propelling cart way back in 1478. Some believe this cart was the first-ever programmable android. The cart-like vehicle did not use any type of fuel for power. Rather it had a spring within it and was wound-up like a tinker toy to get it going.

In 2004, some experts in Italy gathered engineers, carpenters, and computer designers to build this Da Vinci invention. It ran as the artist mapped out centuries earlier.

3. Elektro

While a walking, talking, sassy robot is nothing new these days, in 1939, it was a spectacle. This is why Elektro was such a huge attraction at that point in time. So much so, people flocked to the New York World Fair to catch a glimpse of him.

Elektro was created by Westinghouse Electric, specifically for the fair. He was known for cracking jokes, being a smarty-pants, and even smoking cigarettes. At seven feet, he was quite the spectacle.

Unfortunately, Elektro would disappear shortly after touring across the U.S. His body was later found in a barn and his head in a basement.

After being put back together, Elektro now resides at the Mansfield Memorial Museum. On display at the museum, he’s touted as the oldest-surviving U.S. robot across the globe.

4. Robotic Factory Arm

It’s undeniable that robots are invaluable when it comes to factory work. Many can thank the first-ever industrial robotic arm for paving the way for other companies to use this type of technology to boost productivity.

At 4000 pounds, the mechanical arm was built to decrease injuries amongst workers, create a saver environment, and enhance production. General Motors incorporated the robotic arm into their assembly line within a New Jersey facility in the early 60s and the rest is history.

Jenson / Shutterstock

5. Shakey, the First Intelligent Robot

Before the early 1970s, robots began making their way into society and somewhat becoming the norm. However, they all lacked that human element of reasoning.

Between 1966 to 1972, a team from a high-level West Coast research institution created the very first robot could use reason to guide its action. This robot was called Shakey.

Compared to today’s standards, Shakey was quite primitive. Despite its jerky movements and thick metallic build, the robot could take commands and talk back to its commander.

6. Genghis

As the years wore on and technological insight evolved, robots became more refined.

By 1989, Genghis was born and dubbed the first robot to actually walk properly. Built by MIT Labs’ Mobile Robots Group, Genghis was an autonomous android with six legs. It was not only praised for its walking but also how fast and cost-effective it was to produce the bot.

7. Autonomous Benthic Explorer

Humans did not only want robots to be able to help them with things on Earth, but they also wanted ones that could explore under the sea too. Well, in 1995, this very thing came to fruition.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the biggest oceanographic research facility in the U.S., built the first-ever underwater robot. This robot could independently operate and monitor huge areas of the ocean for long periods of time. It was called the Autonomous Benthic Explorer, or ABE for short.

ABE opened a whole new world for researchers by taking pictures, filming video, collecting samples, and surveying the bottom of the ocean with depths of over 1,600 feet.

8. Mars Pathfinder

If robots were used to perform research activities in the water, why not send them to outer space too? Well, this was accomplished on July 4, 1997, when the Mars Pathfinder landed on the Red Planet to explore.

Built for NASA, the Pathfinder took photos of Mars, gathered samples, collected atmospheric and chemical measurements, and roamed about the planet. It was the first-ever rover to head outside the Earth-Moon system. It operated for just over 80 days before NASA lost contact. This was 12 times longer than what was expected of the machine.

9. Lego Mindstorms

Lego didn’t just build one robot; they built an entire line that is still popular today.

In 1998, Lego launched a series kit set with programmable hardware and software dubbed Mindstorms. The Mindstorms line created one of the easiest and cheapest ways for someone to develop a robot of their own.

AlesiaKan / Shutterstock

10. ASIMO

In 1986, Honda set out on a mission. Their goal was to create robots in the form of humans that could not only co-exist with people but surpass their abilities when contributing to society. It sounds like a crazy science-fiction novel — but this really happened!

In 2000, ASIMO was born. Since its unveiling, ASIMO has proven to be a very impressive little robot. It can listen, talk, see, recognize objects and other people, and even emulate human gestures and manners.

While ASIMO has yet to surpass the abilities of humans, it may only be a matter of time.

cowardlion / Shutterstock

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