If you think robots are mainly the stuff of space movies, think again. Right now, all over the world, robots are on the move. They’re painting cars at Ford plants, assembling Milano cookies for Pepperidge Farms, walking into live volcanoes, driving trains in Paris, and defusing bombs in Northern Ireland. As they grow tougher, nimbler, and smarter, today’s robots are doing more and more things we can’t –or don’t want to–do.
Robots have been with us for less than 50 years, but the idea of inanimate creations to do our bidding is much, much older. The ancient Greek poet Homer described maidens of gold, metallic helpers for the Hephaistos, the Greek god of the forge. The golems of medieval Jewish legend were robot-like servants made of clay, brought to life by a spoken charm. Leonardo da Vinci drew plans for a mechanical man in 1495.
But real robots wouldn’t become possible until the 1950’s and 60’s, with the invention of transistors and integrated circuits. Compact, reliable electronics and a growing computer industry added brains to the brawn of already existing machines. In 1959, researchers demonstrated the possibility of robotic manufacturing when they unveiled a computer-controlled milling machine. Its first product: ashtrays. more+