Granted, it’s a far cry from C-3PO and R2-D2, those endearing droids of “Star Wars,” but Unimate, the world’s first industrial robot, came online in 1961 at General Motors’ Inland Fisher Guide Plant in the West Trenton section of Ewing Township.
Unimate was a programmable hydraulic arm that offloaded dangerous, difficult tasks from human employees. The 4,000-pound unit transferred door handles and other components that had just been cast from molten metal to cooling pools. It also replaced, in a harbinger of things to come, three shifts of workers.
Despite being built to withstand the punishment of the assembly line, Unimate did have an important, though short-lived, career in show business. Its inventors, Joseph Engelberger and George Devol, were aware that the public, thanks to Cold War worries and a steady diet of sci-fi films, might not welcome news of the first commercial robot. Their solution was to book Unimate as a guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. In a live broadcast in 1966.
Engelberger had the robot perform several tricks, including knocking a golf ball into a cup, pouring a beer and conducting the Tonight Show band.
Clips from “The Tonight Show” appearance aren’t available, but the programmable arm can be seen demonstrating a few of its capabilities courtesy of British Movietone.