For all practical purposes, the age of industrial robotics began slightly less than 50 years ago, when the first Unimate robot took up its position on a General Motors assembly line in New Jersey in 1961. Though the Unimate design and patents had been created by George Devol a few years earlier, and the idea of a robot dates back to at least the first century AD, Unimate was the first industrial application of an artificial, automated laborer. As to whether that makes Unimate the first “real” robot depends greatly on your definition of robot — something almost no one agrees upon.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines a robot as thus:
1. A machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (as walking or talking) of a human being ; also : a similar but fictional machine whose lack of capacity for human emotions is often emphasized
2. An efficient insensitive person who functions automatically
3. A device that automatically performs complicated often repetitive tasks
4. A mechanism guided by automatic controls
So, a robot may or may not be a machine, may or may not be humanoid, and may or may not be autonomous. Some combination of these attributes certainly describes Unimate, but some permutation of these descriptors also applies to Dwight from The Office. Perhaps ironically, the first widely popular depiction of creatures called robots was actually something akin to a cross between a Unimate and Dwight Schrute.
In 1921, Czech playwright Karel Capek opened a play called “R.U.R.,” which depicted the plight of artificial, though biological, laborers created by a company called Rossum’s Universal Robots. The term robot in the play was derived from the Czech word robotnik, for slave, and it popularized the term for an autonomous, manufactured worker.
That said, Karel Capek didn’t coin the term robot — his brother Josef did. It was just that Karel was successful at promoting robot into the public consciousness. Over the course of the 20th century, robot came to be synonymous with the various mechanical — and later electronic — automata that had been dreamt up and described by visionaries since the days of Heron of Alexandria. Still, it would take an iconic science fiction writer to (accidentally) coin the term for the field of study that surrounds these artificial laborers.
WHAT ICONIC SCI-FI WRITER ACCIDENTALLY COINED THE TERM “ROBOTICS?”
What iconic science fiction writer accidentally coined the term robotics — despite the fact that no such term was used in “R.U.R.,” the Czech play that popularized the word robot?
The etymological father of robotics is none other than Isaac Asimov, who first coined the term in 1941 in the short story “Liar!,” which was first published in the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.
This story is well known by many science fiction collectors and historians, as it’s the first publication of Asimov’s eponymous Three Laws of Robotics. You remember those:
- A robot must not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where those orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence, except where such protection would conflict with the First or Second Law.
In describing the Three Laws, Asimov also coined the term robotics, which he assumed already existed. He writes in Counting the Eons:
“I did not know at the time that it was an invented term. The science of physics routinely uses the -ics suffix for various branches, as in mechanics, dynamics, electrostatics, hydraulics, and so on. I took it for granted that the study of robots was robotics.”
Ironically, Asimov credits someone else with formalizing the Three Laws, as he also writes in Eons:
“It wasn’t however, till ‘Runaround,’ my fourth robot story, that it all came together in the Three Laws in their present wording, and that was because John Campbell, the late great editor of Astounding, quoted them to me. It always seemed to me that John invented those Laws, but whenever I accused him of that, he always said that they were in my stories and I just hadn’t bothered to isolate them. Perhaps he was right.”
Today, no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary lists “Runaround” as the earliest printed use of robotics. Thus, while Campbell may have codified the laws for which Asimov is famous, Asimov is nonetheless an original authority on robotics.
That’s not just some extraordinary electromechanical etymology; it’s an autonomously actualized artifact of Geek Trivia.
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