Geek Of The Week: George Devol

Geek Of The Week: George Devol

George Devol was born in a wealthy family in Louisville, Kentucky. Choosing to forego higher education, in 1932 Devol went into business, forming United Cinephone to produce variable area recording directly onto film for the new sound motion pictures (“talkies”). However, he later learned that companies like RCA and Western Electric were working in the same area, and decided to discontinue the product. In 1939, Devol applied for a patent for proximity controls for use in laundry press machines, based on a radio frequency field. This control would automatically open and close laundry presses when workers approached the machines. Once the war began, Devol was advised by the patent office that his patent application would be placed on hold for the duration of the conflict.

Around the time the World War II began, Devol sold his interest in United Cinephone and approached Sperry Gyroscope to see if they were interested in his ideas on radar technology. He was retained by Sperry as manager of the Special Projects Department that developed radar devices and microwave test equipment. In the 1940s, Devol wasn’t thinking about robots. Instead, he was focusing on manipulators and his patent on magnetic recording devices. He felt the world was ready for new ideas as he saw the introduction of automation into factories during this time. In 1954, Devol applied for patent on Programmed Article Transfer that introduced the concept of Universal Automation or Unimation; U.S. Patent 2,988,237 was issued in 1954. At the suggestion of Devol’s wife, Evelyn, the word “Unimate” was coined to define the product. The first Unimate prototypes were controlled by vacuum tubes used as digital switches though later versions used transistors. Further, the “off-the-shelf” parts available in the late 1950s, such as digital encoders, were not adequate for the Unimate’s purpose, and as a result, with Devol’s guidance and a team of skilled engineers, Unimation designed and machined practically every part in the first Unimates. Devol also invented a variety of new technologies, including a unique rotating drum memory system with data parity controls.

In 1960, Devol personally sold the first Unimate robot, which was shipped in 1961 to General Motors. GM first used the machine for die casting handling and spot welding. The first Unimate robot was installed at GM’s Inland Fisher Guide Plant in Ewing Township, New Jersey in 1961 to lift hot pieces of metal from a die-casting machine and stack them. Soon companies such as Chrysler, Ford, and Fiat saw the necessity for large Unimate purchases. This was really the start of automation in industry, and definitely makes Devol worthy to be geek of the week.

About the Author

avatar MIKE: A geek who currently works as a Biologist and has an extensive science background. He is an avid user of HPC systems used for scientific research in the Washington DC area. Mike's working knowledge of using computers to solve problems brings a unique viewpoint to the podcast.