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The Industrial Revolution spurred the modernization of robotics when society made the shift from agricultural to urban, but the origins of robots actually date back to ancient times when evidence of human-like figures were documented in Greece. It wasn’t until 1954, though, that the first robot — like we think of them today — was invented. And thus the foundation was set for the thriving robotics industry that we interact with every day.

According to UW mechanical engineering professor emeritus Neil Duffie ’72, MS’74, PhD’80, the earliest documentation of the first robot on the UW-Madison campus was in the 1960s. “Professor John Bollinger ’57, PhD’61, later dean of engineering, and his students built a 1-head 5-axis welding robot in the 1960s. The application was welding car frames.”

Professor Duffie also described that the project — funded by the A.O. Smith Corporation in Milwaukee — was tested on campus in the Mechanical Engineering building, and soon after a 2-head, 10-axis industrial version was built by A.O. Smith and installed in a plant in Milwaukee. (Fun fact: robots were not called robotics back then, but “Electronic Cams” because of issues with the trade unions.)

Soon after this project, additional robots came to campus in the form of exoskeletons built by Professor Emeritus Ali Seireg (1927-2002) in the early 1970s. A display of his work can be found in the Mechanical Engineering building. Seireg is also lauded as a pioneer in the field of mechanical and biomedical design, advancing engineering problems related to walking, diving and swimming.

And for you Linguistics and English majors, if you are interested in the origin of the word “robot”, we found the answer to that, too.

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