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Joseph F. Engelberger



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Joseph F. Engelberger, 90, a longtime resident of Newtown, known as the “Father of Robotics,” died peacefully at his home, December 1. He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., July 26, 1925, and was the son of the late Joseph H. Engelberger and Irene Kolb.

“My big hope for robotics was to build one that would be personally useful,” Mr Engelberger told The Newtown Bee this past summer. “What would be interesting to me would be if you could hire a robot to live with an older person and be useful and be friendly. But I never got the funding to make that personal robot.”

Mr Engelberger was a graduate of Bassick High School in Bridgeport, Class of 1943, where he earned high academic honors. He was recruited to a post-Pearl Harbor Hawaii in World War II, serving in the US Navy from 1942 to 1946. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University.

Early in his career, he served as chief engineer at Manning, Maxwell and Moore. He left MM&M to form his own company, Consolidated Controls Corporation.

In 1956, Mr Engelberger met inventor George Devol and the industrial robot’s first spark was ignited. Hearing about Devol’s recently patented Programmable Article Transfer, Mr Engelberger, inspired by author Isaac Asimov’s robot stories, immediately grasped the potential for factory floor automation. He launched the world’s first robotics company, Unimation. Its first industrial robot, called Unimate, was installed in a General Motors plant in 1961. Factories worldwide later developed the technology, transforming modern manufacturing processes.

Unimate even made an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, in 1966, famously sinking a golf putt, much to Mr Carson’s and the audience’s amazement. Since Unimate was introduced, approximately three million industrial robots have been installed in manufacturing facilities around the world. As founder and president, Mr Engelberger grew Unimation into a company with more than 1,000 employees before being acquired by Westinghouse Electric in 1982.

Jeane Roberts was saddened to hear of Mr Engelberger’s passing. Her late husband, Nelson “Skip” Roberts, worked closely with Mr Engelberger “almost from the time we were married, over 60 years ago.” She remembered Mr Engelberger as a “remarkable person, a genius, in a way. He founded the whole robot industry.” A businessman and an inventor, Mrs Roberts also recalled the robotics pioneer as a good friend. “We lost a good friend and the world has lost a very highly intelligent individual.”

The Robotics Industries Association noted Mr Engelberger’s passing in a posting at their website, www.robotics.org.

“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 (RIA), an organization Mr 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,” said Mr Burnstein.

His industrial applications fundamentally changed the automotive manufacturing sector, allowing for greater efficiency and precision with the use of robotic arms on assembly lines.  These innovations were a major factor in the rise of the Japanese auto industry.

After the sale of Unimation, Mr Engelberger saw a whole new field for robotics — in health care and elder care.

In 1984 he formed HelpMate Robotics, Inc, initially called Transitions Research Corp, with a goal to give robots sensory capabilities to work with humans in service activities. Two of those HelpMate robots were introduced at Danbury Hospital.

“I knew Joe for many years,” said Dr Robert Grossman. “The thing most know about Joe is that he invented the first robot that was used for many years at Danbury Hospital. Joe worked with them at the hospital, making sure that it all worked well,” he said. The HelpMate robots were often seen traveling along hospital hallways, and in and out of elevators, carrying pharmaceuticals and supplies. HelpMate was acquired by Cardinal Health in 1997.

Dr Grossman called Mr Engelberger “a good friend,” who was always active in town. “He was with the Men’s Club for many years,” said Dr Grossman.

Cardinal Health later acquired Helpmate Robotics, Inc.      

Mr Engelberger was a tireless advocate for robotics. He testified before congressional committees, briefed world leaders, and gave media interviews to advance the cause of scientific research and encourage application of robotics in industry, space exploration, and daily life.

A member of the US National Academy of Engineering and the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering, Mr Engelberger received many awards in his career, the Society of Manufacturing Engineer’s Progress Award, the Nyselius Award from the American Die Casting Institute, the Leonardo da Vinci Award, the American Machinist Award, the Golden Omega Award, the McKechnie Award, the Egleston Medal, the Beckman Award, and the Japan Prize, the honor he was most proud of. He authored numerous articles and books, including Robotics in Practice and Robotics in Service.

Mr Engelberger was inducted into the US Manufacturers Hall of Fame in 2009. The Robotics Industries Association’s prestigious annual award is named for him. The Joseph F. Engelberger Award is given to individuals making outstanding contributions to the field of robotics. Since the award’s inception in 1977, it has been presented to 116 robotics leaders from 17 different nations.

His daughter Gay Engelberger and her husband, Kevin McNally; son Jeff Engelberger; grandson Ian Engelberger; and numerous nieces and nephews survive Mr Engelberger. His wife, Marge Engelberger, predeceased him in 2007.

Services will be private. There are no calling hours.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial donations be made to Regional Hospice and Home Care, 30 Milestone Road, Danbury CT 06810 or at www.regionalhospicect.org.

The Honan Funeral Home, Newtown, is serving the family. To leave an online condolence visit www.honanfh.com.

This story was updated December 3.

Joseph F. Engelberger, the "Father of Robotics," died December 1, at the age of 90.
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