In the 50 years since George Devol and Joe Engelberger put the first robot on the factory floor of General Motors in 1961, robots have found their way into surgery rooms, scientific laboratories, battlefields, search and rescue situations, Mars, and even our homes as vacuum cleaners, toys, and security guards. Today, governments, corporations, and scientists envision robotics as a major component of technological, economic, and social development in the 21st century. Rodney Brooks suggests that a "robotics revolution" is imminent, while Bill Gates predicts that we will soon have "robots in every home." The Japanese government, in the meantime, is supporting the development of "partner robots" as a key growth industry.
In recognition of the technological advances and increasing social relevance of robotics, we are examining how the field has developed so far. We aim to develop an understanding of the development of robotics as a field of scientific study and technological practice that takes into account both individual experiences and broader system dynamics that have shaped the field. We use interviews, online surveys, and documents produced in the field to identify the individuals, institutions, events, and ideas that have significantly influenced the developmental trajectory of robotics and to better understand how the scientific goals and practices and societal applications and perceptions of robotics have changed through the years.
As writing a history of robotics is a very large project, our immediate goal is to take the initial steps in instigating academic discussion of the history of robotics, develop a framework for collecting video, audio, photographic, and archival data on the subject, and bringing it to the awareness of the public via an online archive. The 50-year anniversary of the application of robotics in society is an opportune moment to call attention to robotics as an important subject within the history of computing, as well as to make sure that information about the first half century of the field is not lost.