Have you ever wanted a robot to complete your homework? Humans have always dreamed of machines automating their work. Robots, an automated machine that can perform tasks with an understanding of its environment, have come a long way. “Gear up” for a fun story that continues to be written! Today we're going to explore the history of robotics for kids!

Discover the history of early robotics

1. Leonardo's Robot

Leonardo da Vinci was not only a renowned artist, he was also well known for his inventions. In 1495, da Vinci devised plans for a mechanical knight, nicknamed “Leonardo’s Robot.” The sketchbook was discovered in 1959 and re-creations of the designs produce a pulley and cable powered knight that could sit, move its arms, and raise its visor. It is unknown whether the machine was actually created while da Vinci was alive.

Leonardo's robot

2. Production lines

Starting in the early 1800s, the idea of a production line formed. These production lines would use some automated mechanical machines to perform complex tasks. Machines such as the Cotton Gin and Jacquard’s Loom accelerated fabric production. Making work more efficient in factories drives innovation in robotics even to this day.

3. "Robot" is used

In 1921, the word “robot” first appeared in a Czech play titled R.U.R - Rossum’s Universal Robots. The English word for “robot” comes from the Czech word “robota”, which closely means “forced laborer” or “serf”. The play imagines a factory of human-like machines revolting against humans after being overworked.

4. Robots in fiction

The idea of machines taking over humanity influenced many more works of fiction. One of these is Issac Asimov’s short story and essay series I, Robot. In one 1942 essay of this series Asimov comes up with the “Three Laws of Robotics” - a robot cannot harm humans, a robot has to always obey humans, and a robot should try to protect itself unless it conflicts with the first two laws.

Explore the history of early “real” robots

1. Unimate

In 1954 George Devol and Joseph Engelberger patented the Unimate, the first industrial robotic arm. The arm entered mass production in 1961 and the arm became very popular. In 1966 the arm, alongside its inventors, were guests on NBC’s Tonight Show and performed tricks such as pouring drinks and conducting the band. A General Motors factory of Unimate arms can weld 110 car frames in one hour, more than double the speed of any other factory.


2. First robot that used AI

The first robot that utilized artificial intelligence (AI) was invented in 1972 by Stanford University researchers. “Shakey” the robot used cameras and sensors to slowly roll around a room. Shakey could even follow basic voice commands! The AI algorithm Shakey used, A*, is still used today in text recognition and route finding.

3. Humanoid robots

In the 1980s, Honda began to develop humanoid robots. Humanoid robots are robots designed to resemble humans by walking on two legs. Designing a robot that can balance on its own is difficult. The most famous of Honda’s humanoid robots was Asimo, unveiled in 2000. The robot was 4 ft 3 inches tall (1.3 meters), could walk 5.6 miles per hour (9 km/h), climb stairs, hop on one leg, and kick a soccer ball.

Humanoid robots

4. First toy robot

Robots have always fascinated kids. The first toy robot was “Robert the Robot” and appeared in a 1954 toy catalog. Once computers and robots became more accessible, so did robotics education. In 1998, LEGO released its first Mindstorms robotics set. To this day many kids get introduced to robotics through Legos. In 2005, VEX held its first national robotics competition and continues to be one of the main robotics education programs. Your child can get started with VEX robotics with Create & Learn’s Robot Adventures class (grades 4-8) or Junior Robotics class for younger students (grades 2-4)!

Discover a preview of the future of robotics

1. Surgical robots

In 2000 the first Da Vinci surgical robot was released. This robot was the first commercially available medical robot and it helped improve a doctor’s precision when performing a surgery thanks to smoother hand movements and closer camera angles. Medical robotics continues to be a hot sub-field of robotics.

Surgical robots

2. Commercially available robots

Robots used to be something so advanced that they weren’t common outside of research or factory settings. However in 2002 a group of former MIT researchers released the first commercially available Roomba vacuum cleaning robot. As of 2020 the iRobot company behind the original Roomba has sold 30 million home robots.

3. Self-driving cars

In 2004, DARPA, the US Military’s scientific and engineering research department, hosted its Grand Challenge for Autonomous cars. Traversing a 115 mile course through the California and Nevada desert, zero out of 15 cars completed the first race. The second grand prix held 18 months later saw five out of 195 cars complete the race. This Grand Challenge is considered to kickstart research and development towards self-driving cars.

4. Drones

Drones, small flying machines, have been used for military purposes for years. However, these drones were quite large and only used by the military. In 2006 the US Federal Aviation Administration allowed the first non-military use of drones for a pesticide spraying robot. Since then drones have been used for civilian purposes for deliveries and photography and continue to be an exciting future for robotics.

The history of robotics points to a fascinating future

If robots have improved so much these past few decades, imagine what the future holds! After learning about the history of robots, it’s now time for you to make your mark. Register for robotics for kids courses and robotics camps on Create & Learn today!

Future articles will cover the history of other technologies such as video games, the internet, and cell phones. Up next, read about the history of computer hardware.

Written by Brandon Lim, a Create & Learn instructor and curriculum developer. Brandon also works full-time as a software engineer and holds a BS in Computer Science from Johns Hopkins University. Brandon has experience teaching coding to students of all ages from elementary school to college and is excited to share his deep knowledge and relentless passion for coding with the next generation of technology leaders.