Obituary: Victor Scheinman
Inventor who designed advanced robots that could outperform people
Victor Scheinman, who has died aged 73, designed the first electrically powered, computer-controlled industrial robot, proving that it was possible for machines to do complex manual work.
Scheinman's invention, known as the Stanford arm, was a programmable robot with six rotational joints, allowing it to duplicate the shoulder, elbow and wrist movements of a human. Unlike previous machines, which could only perform one task repeatedly, the Stanford arm was capable of following a series of instructions. In 1974, an experimental arm built in accordance with his design managed to assemble a car water pump without human help, using sensors to guide it. That same year Scheinman founded Vicarm Inc and began making his robot commercially.
He soon fell in with the engineer and businessman Joseph Engelberger, who, with his colleague George Devol, had founded Unimation, the world's first robotics company. Unimation's most reliable client was General Motors, which had already started using Devol's mechanical arm to weld together bits of metal on the factory line.
The versatility of Scheinman's design appealed, and in 1977 Unimation and General Motors started developing it as the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly, or Puma. For the first time, factory machines began handling delicate components such as light bulbs, and completing tasks faster than their human co-workers. Today, more than 240,000 industrial robots are sold to companies around the world every year.
Victor David Scheinman was born on December 28, 1942, in Augusta, Georgia, where his father Leonard was stationed with the US Army. At the end of the war the family moved to Brooklyn and Leonard returned to work as a psychiatrist.
Though he was keen on science from an early age, Victor's first contact with robots was traumatic. Aged eight or nine, he was taken to see the science fiction film The Day The Earth Stood Still and became so frightened by the eight-foot humanoid Gort that he suffered nightmares for weeks. As therapy, his father suggested that he build his own robots out of wood. The strategy worked; by the time Victor was 16 he had graduated from high school in the Bronx and enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studying aeronautics and astronautics.
After graduation in 1963, he studied for a Masters degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, taking a particular interest in rocket and nuclear propulsion. During the summer breaks he worked for the Apollo space programme, helping to build the Saturn family of rockets and the module that would eventually land on the moon in 1969.
Scheinman went on to join Stanford's artificial intelligence lab. His other projects included electronic limbs for people with disabilities, and a programmable hydraulic arm so powerful that the floor of the lab would shake when it was switched on. However, an unfortunate tendency to leak oil meant that the latter design was eventually scrapped.
In later life, Scheinman was a visiting professor at Stanford. In 1980 he co-founded Automatix, the first company to sell robots with inbuilt cameras and sensors which allow them to "see" their surroundings. During his time with the company Scheinman also developed RobotWorld, a system that allows small robots to cooperate with each another on assembly tasks - potentially negating the need for the traditional factory floor, as the whole team could operate in a space just a few feet high.
Victor Scheinman, who died on September 20, is survived by his wife Sandra Jean Auerback, whom he married in 2006, and by two children from a previous marriage.