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Newtown's Joseph F. Engelberger, 90, Father Of Robotics

Joseph Engelberger, 90, was a pioneer in the field of robotics.
Joseph Engelberger, 90, was a pioneer in the field of robotics. Photo Credit: Robotics.org

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Joseph F. Engelberger, an engineer and entrepreneur who pioneered the field of robotics, died Tuesday, Dec. 1, at his home in Newtown. He was 90.

Widely known as the father of the modern robotics industry, Engelberger worked with inventor George Devol, licensing patents and developing the first industrial robot in the United States under the brand name Unimate. The technology was adopted for industrial use in a General Motors plant in 1961 and was later deployed at factories worldwide.

“Joe Engelberger made some of the most important contributions to technological advancement in the history of the world,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotic Industries Association, an organization Engelberger was instrumental in founding. “Because of Joe, robotics became a global industry that has revolutionized the way things are made.

"He was years ahead of his time in his vision of how robots could be designed and used both inside and outside the factory. Joe envisioned robots based on insects and birds decades ago – developments that we are finally seeing today. Early on, he asked the one question that continues to transform the industry: ‘Do you think a robot could do that?’ Inspired by Joe’s insights, researchers have answered ‘yes’ and developed the amazing robotics applications found worldwide today.”

Engelberger was founder and president of Unimation Inc., the world’s first industrial robotics manufacturer, which he launched in 1956, as well as HelpMate Robotics Inc. That company's robot hospital courier, HelpMate, is used in hospitals worldwide.

His industrial applications changed the automotive manufacturing sector, enabling carmakers to achieve greater efficiency with the use of robotic arms on assembly lines. The innovations Engelberger introduced were a major factor in the rise of the Japanese auto industry.

Inspired by science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov to envision a world in which humans were assisted by robots in all aspects of life, Engelberger was a tireless advocate for robotics. In addition to his groundbreaking work, he testified before congressional committees, authored books, published articles, and gave interviews to advance the cause of scientific research and encourage application of robotics in industry, space exploration, and daily life.

Engelberger and his Unimate robot appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson in 1966, where the robot demonstrated its dexterity by sinking a golf putt, pouring a beer, and directing the band.

Engelberger earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University.

Engelberger was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on July 26, 1925, to Joseph and Irene Engelberger. His wife, Marge Engelberger, died in 2007. He is survived by daughter Gay, son Jeff and grandson Ian.

The Honan Funeral Home in Newtown is handling arrangements.

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