George C. Devol, a self-taught tinkerer whose invention of the robotic arm revolutionized factories around the world, died of a heart ailment Aug. 11 at his home in Wilton, Conn. He was 99.
The robotic arm, which Devol dreamed up in the early 1950s, was originally called the "programmed article-handling device." It was a long name for a relatively simple and very smart machine that, in the coming decades, would become a fixture on modern assembly lines.
The Unimate, as the product became known, was designed to perform jobs that were dangerous or costly for human workers. Devol sold the first of his robotic arms in 1961 to a General Motors plant in Trenton, where it handled the hot metal used in die casting.
Devol's product was wildly successful in countries such as Japan, however, and in the late 1960s his company signed a deal with Kawasaki Heavy Industries. In 2006, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimated that there were more than 950,000 industrial robots in operation worldwide.
Many of them are direct or indirect descendants of Unimate, said Carlene Stephens, the curator of the robot collection at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. In 2005, Popular Mechanics magazine named the robotic arm one of the top 50 inventions of the past 50 years, along with the jet airliner and the TV remote control. Devol was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame this year.
Devol's business partner was engineer Joseph F. Engelberger. Together they formed the company Unimation in Danbury, Conn.
It was an odd couple: Engelberger had degrees from Columbia University; Devol hadn't graduated from high school. Engelberger was said to love science fiction; Devol had no special love for the genre, his daughter Christine Wardlow said. But like most odd couples, Engelberger and Devol had something important in common: They believed in the potential of robotics for the United States.
Devol's wife, the former Evelyn Jahelka, died in 2003. Besides his daughter, of Littleton, Colo., survivors include children George C. Devol III of New Canaan, Conn., Robert Devol of Wilton and Suzanne Judkins of Brookfield, Conn.; five grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.