2011 in Review: Tech Luminaries We Lost

George Devol

The Man With the Robot Arm

February 1912 - August 2011

If one man represents the real-world impact of IT, it's probably George Devol, who developed the first digitally programmable robot arm. A lifelong tinkerer with a fascination for electronics, Devol invented a system for recording sound for movies in the 1930s, then switched to systems that used photoelectric cells to open and close doors and sort bar-coded express packages (he also used "electric eyes" to count visitors to the 1939 New York World's Fair).

After starting a company that made anti-radar devices used by the U.S. Army in World War II, Devol turned his inventiveness to factory automation in the 1950s. The large programmable "Unimate" arm he developed used magnetic drum memory and discrete solid-state control components. It made its factory debut in 1961 on a General Motors assembly line in New Jersey, stacking freshly die-cast (and very hot) metal parts. By 1966, the arms were being used by other automakers for welding, spray-painting and applying adhesives, and the Japanese were using them, too. Within 20 years, Devol's Unimation was the biggest robotic-arm company in the world. (Here's a video interview in which Devol discusses his work.)

Devol's biggest public moment may have been one in which he never actually appeared. In 1966, the Unimate arm was a "guest" on television's Tonight Show, where the arm was programmed to sink a golf putt, pour a beer and lead the band. (See the video clip, below.)

Lee Davenport

Radar Maker

December 1915 - September 2011

Lee Davenport didn't invent battlefield radar for tracking enemy planes, but the system he developed -- which used a computer to control anti-aircraft guns -- did its job better than any previous approach during World War II.

Recruited as a Ph.D. student in early 1941 by the top-secret Radiation Lab at MIT, Davenport oversaw day-to-day work on the SCR-584 anti-aircraft system. The U.S. Army began using it in combat in early 1944, first in Italy and then for the D-Day invasion. At the Battle of the Bulge, the radar system was also used to spot German ground vehicles in the snowy terrain.

In addition, the SCR-584 was used in 1944 to defend London against German buzz bombs. During that operation, Davenport said he found members of one U.S. anti-aircraft crew trying to read the SCR-584 manual in combat because they hadn't been trained to use the system. "Seven or eight buzz bombs came within range while I was there," he later said. "The crew never got a single shot off at any one of them." But once trained, the SCR-584 crews were very effective in shooting down the buzz bombs.

Wilson Greatbatch

Heartbeat of the Century

September 1919 - September 2011

It was an electronic mistake in 1956 that led to the first practical implantable cardiac pacemaker. Wilson Greatbatch, an electrical-engineering professor at the University of Buffalo, was building a heart rhythm monitor for the school's Chronic Disease Research Institute. When he attached a wrong-size resistor to a circuit, it produced intermittent electrical pulses -- which, Greatbatch realized, might be used to regulate a damaged heart.

Two years later, doctors at the Veterans Administration hospital in Buffalo demonstrated that a 2-cubic-in. implantable device built by Greatbatch could regulate a dog's heart. That same year, a pacemaker from Swedish designer Rune Elmqvist was implanted in a human patient, but it failed within days. In 1960, an improved version of Elmqvist's pacemaker kept a patient in Uruguay alive for nine months. But that year in Buffalo, 10 patients (including two children) received Greatbatch's device, and its battery lasted two years or more. In 1972, Greatbatch was able to re-engineer the device with a new battery that worked for more than a decade. (Visit the Vega Science Trust website to watch an hour-long video interview in which Greatbatch discusses his work.)

Frank Hayes has been covering the intersection of business and IT for three decades. Contact him at cw@frankhayes.com.

Subscribe to the Today in Tech Newsletter

Comments