Fifty years ago, the first successful robot application took place at a General Motors plant in New Jersey.

Fifty years ago, the world was a much different place. The Cold War was well underway, with East Germany erecting the era’s most somber symbol-the Berlin Wall. Russia also startled the world that year when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

In the manufacturing world, several groundbreaking events also occurred in 1961. That’s the year when through-hole technology was introduced in the electronics industry. It’s also when Becton Dickinson unveiled the world’s first plastic disposable syringe (the following year, it opened a plant in Canaan, CT, to assemble the innovative product).

Another important milestone tool place in 1961-the first industrial robot installation. General Motors Corp. purchased a Unimate robot and installed it at its Ternstedt division plant in Ewing, NJ. A jointed, telescopic, 4,000-pound arm sequenced and stacked pieces of diecast metal.

The robot was used to tend a furnace, where it dropped red-hot door handles, window handles, gearshift knobs, light fixtures and other metal hardware used in automotive interiors (back in the days when cars had chrome, not plastic!) into pools of cooling liquid. It was part of a line that moved the parts downstream for manual trimming and buffing.

The first Unimate unit cost $25,000 and took about one hour to program. It resembled the gun turret of a tank set atop a rectangular box that housed a magnetic drum containing memory. Unimation Inc. spent $5 million to develop the robot in the late 1950s.

When it debuted at GM’s plant 50 years ago, the humble Unimate wasn’t the first robot to hit the market. For instance, a year earlier, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) had developed the world’s first cylindrical robot-the Versatran-for industrial applications. But, the Unimate demonstrated that robots weren’t merely some weird thing that was confined to science fiction novels.

The Unimate machine worked nearly around the clock for more than 10 years and is now housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Three years after the first installation, GM ordered 66 Unimates for its new Lordstown, OH, assembly plant, and it’s been full speed ahead ever since.

During the recent Automate show in Chicago, I had an opportunity to stop by the Kawasaki Robotics Inc. booth, which displayed a vintage Unimate. Its parent company supplied the articulated arm to Unimate 50 years ago. The Unimate on display looked prehistoric sitting next to a state-of-the-art six-axis robot, but 50 years ago, it must have seemed futuristic. The old robot is owned by Practical Robotic Services LLC, which still sells parts and service for the Unimate brand.

Does anyone have any stories to share about early Unimate robots? I’ve been told that some of these machines are still in operation today, which I find hard to believe. Does anyone know if that’s true?