While conducting research for our  Boeing cenntenial supplement, I spent hours perusing volumes of old magazines. Along the way, I spent a day in Seattle with the personal collection of the legendary Claire Egtvedt (a mechanical engineer who joined Boeing in 1917 and quickly rose through the ranks of the young company). By the time Egtvedt retired in 1966, he had served as president and chairman of Boeing for several decades, guiding the company through World War II, the Cold War, the jet age and the space race.

I also spent a lot of time flipping through old copies of ASSEMBLY magazine. One day, I accidently came across an article that referenced some early robotic applications. That made me question where (and when) the first assembly robot was used.

According to most accounts (including Wikipedia, which I never trust), the first robotic application in a factory occurred in 1961 at General Motors’ Ternstedt division plant in Trenton, NJ. The factory (a unit of GM’s Fisher Body division) made door and window handles, gearshift knobs, light fixtures and other hardware for automotive interiors.

Obeying step-by-step commands stored on a magnetic drum, the Unimate robot’s 4,000-pound arm sequenced and stacked hot pieces of diecast metal.

Today, the machine is housed at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI. For some odd reason, however, it’s not on public display. I’m a big fan of that museum, but I think the curators are missing out on a great opportunity. I’d love to see the old machine displayed next to a state-of-the-art Fanuc robot that’s used in a Ford plant today.

George Devol received a U.S. Patent (#2,988,237) for the Unimate robot on June 13, 1961. Digging a little deeper into the past, I also learned that Pullman Inc. (the Chicago-based railroad car manufacturer that epitomized 19th century craft manufacturing) owned a 51 percent stake in Devol’s company, Unimation Inc.

In addition, I came across an article from the August 1961 issue of ASSEMBLY that explained how “industrial robots that can be programmed to do a variety of repetitive assembly tasks are now a reality. Some of these devices are already at work in companies making such varied products as clocks, electric typewriters and automotive parts. This is less than two years after the first experimental models were announced by U.S. Industries Inc.”

The TransfeRobot was developed by the Robodyne division of U.S. Industries (a New York-based conglomerate that had its hand in a wide variety of businesses ranging from apparel manufacturing and eye glasses to fitness centers and mobile homes).

ASSEMBLY first reported on the futuristic Robodyne machine in its January 1960 issue. And, in August 1961, ASSEMBLY published an article entitled “Industrial Robot Performs Operations on Command from its own Electronic Brain.” The article explained how several manufacturers were already using the TransfeRobot.

“At the Westclox plant in LaSalle, IL, one such unit is incorporated in the assembly line to oil completed clocks as they near the end of the line. The machine oils eight precision bearings in one second,” the article pointed out. “At the Underwood-Olivetti plant in Hartford, CT, an industrial robot picks up, transfers and places a small component for an electric typewriter into a close-fitting nest for a countersinking operation.”

I hope someone can help shed some light on this mystery and answer a few question. For instance, should another company other than GM be credited with the first successful robotic application (did Underwood-Olivetti, Westclox or another manufacturer beat GM to the punch)? Does anyone know why Pullman invested in Unimation? What ever happened to U.S. Industries? Do any TransfeRobots still exist?

Also, does anyone know when the first Unimate robot was first installed at GM? Most accounts I’m familiar with claim that it was in 1961. However, the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) says that it was 1959.

The RIA also claims the Unimate 1900 robot was introduced in 1961 “at a trade show at Chicago’s Cow Palace.” But, that’s inaccurate. Chicago never had an exhibit hall called the “Cow Palace” (the International Amphitheater, which was located next to the Union Stockyards on the southwest side of the city, hosted numerous events before McCormick Place was built, including early versions of the IMTS show).