The definition of “robot” is quite controversial. The most common definition is that a robot is a machine capable of carrying out complex tasks or series of tasks based on programming from a human. But culturally, and in the science fiction literature, a robot not simply such a machine. It also has added character — traits that, if they don’t make the machine mimic a human, they at least make appear as some kind of distorted reflection of a human. Linguistically, “robot” comes from the czech word “robota,” meaning “forced labor;” and, to labor seems to involve some degree of autonomous control post-programming and post-activation.
According to these definitions, “robot” lies somewhere between a strict “it’s only a machine performing tasks” that would arguably make a photocopier (or sorter or stapler) a robot, and an anthropomorphic machine that isn’t quite an android. Humans have been making such machines for a very, very long time, but what was the first robot?
Hardcore prehistoricists, what we might call “ancientpunk” students of technological history, would argue that Archytas’s bird of 400 BC was the first documented robot. Born in Italy in 428 BC, Archytas belonged to the Pythagorean school of mathematics and was a friend of Plato. Archytas created a bird that flew up to 200 meters, powered on steam. Based on the minimalist definition, if we call flying a complex task, and acknowledge that the bird flew “on its own” after its initial release, and also give some recognition to historical relativity (nobody else was making machines that could be launched and then perform tasks at least momentarily independent of an operator), the mechanical bird was the first robot, as well as one of the first flying machines.
Of course, this glorious bird was neither anthropomorphic nor semi-autonomous. In 1927, Ron Wensley created a humanoid-looking machine capable of performing a variety of simulated human-like tasks, including (eventually) speaking two simple sentences as well as listening to the speech of others and performing a very limited range of tasks based on what it had heard. The machine’s name was Herbert Televox, which only added to the already science fiction-like nature of the thing. Televox’s job was to operate a telephone switchboard. If we consider historical relativity, this was most certainly a full-fledged robot, and the first of its kind. Televox is my personal favorite, and definitely the archetype proto-robot of the early electrical era.
Over time, however, the functional definition of robot departed from a conscious engagement with science fiction and evolved into full industrial and commercial telos. That’s why, if you ask many tech historians what the first robot was, they’ll say it was the Unimate, which was built by George Devol in 1954 and sold to and deployed by General Motors in 1961 to lift burning-hot metal pieces from die casting machines in its automobile plant in West Trenton, New Jersey. The robot’s tasks were both complex and dangerous. Unimate pulled the parts from their burning hot source, dipped them into cooling liquid, and then placed them into an apparatus for workers to trim and refine them. Significantly, the widely varied tasks were stored in Unimate’s memory drum. It is this distinguishing feature — a programmable memory enabling the performance of tasks contingent on commands and conditions — that made the industrial machine the “first” robot of its kind.
In the end, my science fiction soul still believes that Herbert Televox was the first robot; but my analytic mind admits that Unimate was more robotic than Televox. In both instances, programmers made use of what were, for their times, elaborate “if-then” parametrics. Culturally, however, Televox is more likely to pop up in our minds when we mention robots. Perhaps Unimate would be more likely to pop up if we were to specifically think robotics — especially industrial robotics. Archytas’s bird gets an extremely honorable mention, because someone had to kick the whole trajectory off, and mechanical flight in the 4th century BC is nothing to shrug off.