Finding Aids to Oral Histories in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 9552
Robotics Videohistory Collection, 1989-1990
Robotics is the applied science of intelligent machines, a field of research that combines electrical, electronic, and mechanical engineering. Steven Lubar, curator in the Division of Engineering and Industry at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (NMAH), recorded four sessions with robots designers to document different work styles, environments, and the processes by which engineers make decisions. He captured the style of work at two university settings and a corporate site to understand how their differing objectives influenced technological development. His goal was to interview researchers working with their machines--to document the "hands-on" aspect of development--and to record the robots in use. Lubar was also interested in documenting the interactions between researchers, the robots, and their environment.
The Smithsonian Videohistory Program, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation from 1986 until 1992, used video in historical research. Additional collections have been added since the grant project ended. Videohistory uses the video camera as a historical research tool to record moving visual information. Video works best in historical research when recording people at work in environments, explaining artifacts, demonstrating process, or in group discussion. The experimental program recorded projects that reflected the Institution's concern with the conduct of contemporary science and technology.
Smithsonian historians participated in the program to document visual aspects of their on-going historical research. Projects covered topics in the physical and biological sciences as well as in technological design and manufacture. To capture site, process, and interaction most effectively, projects were taped in offices, factories, quarries, laboratories, observatories, and museums. Resulting footage was duplicated, transcribed, and deposited in the Smithsonian Institution Archives for scholarship, education, and exhibition. The collection is open to qualified researchers.
Session participants included students, professors, technicians, and engineers. Session One took place in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, on March 31, 1989. Lubar focused on the development of a robot at a university with a strong engineering tradition and a program with very practical goals. Lung-Wen Tsai, Jigien "Roger" Chen, and Shapour Azarm, professors in the department, oversaw the development and production of a robot designed by students for a national competition. The professors discussed the competition and the university's involvement with it, student participation and their level of effort, design of robots, and the nature of engineering design and its application to robots. This highly visual session also documented the students' work in the laboratory and machine shop, and classroom progress reports about the robot under construction.
Session Two took place at Odetics, Inc., in Anaheim, California, on December 14, 1989, where Lubar documented the only commercial firm currently producing walking robots. While there, he talked with Steve Bartholet, the inventor of the firm's first walking robot, ODEX I. Bartholet spoke about initial concepts and design configurations, and demonstrated structural features of the robot while it walked. Lubar also talked with Robert Drap, who designed the computer system for a self-contained machine. Joel Slutzkey, Odetics president, provided the overview of the company's role in robotics research and development. Finally, Lubar interviewed technicians involved in the most recent phase of robotics development, ODEX III. Armen Sivaslian determined production methods and demonstrated telescopic leg structure. Steven Corley, a software developer, demonstrated the debugging process (modify and re-code) for software that controlled the robot's leg operations.
Session Three took place at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU), Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 20 and 21, 1990. The Institute was established in 1979 to bring together cooperative programs between academia and industry to conduct research in robotics technologies relevant to industrial problems. The focus of the session was to record the history of Ambler (Autonomous Mobile Exploration Robot), a six-legged walking robot commissioned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to explore and sample the planetary surface of Mars. Lubar recorded a weekly integration meeting of production leaders and students involved with Ambler, a group interview with four Ambler project leaders, and a work session in the Ambler control room where students discussed and resolved some of the robot's movement problems.
Ambler project leaders interviewed included Erik Krotkov, professor and research scientist for the Ambler, Kevin Dowling, a graduate student who served previously as project manager for the Ambler before his current position as project manager for NASA Space Shuttle ground operations robot development, Henning Pangels, a graduate student leader of Ambler's physical control and real-time computing team, and John Bares, a Ph.D. candidate responsible for Ambler's configuration design. Participants in the control room included Pangels, and CMU students David Wettergreen and Regis Hoffman. Finally, Brian Albrecht, current Ambler project manager, conducted a visual tour of the Ambler robot.
Session Four provided an overview of the Robotics Institute's philosophy and research interests. Albrecht led Lubar on a laboratory tour highlighting other CMU-designed robots and discussed the history of their development. Lubar also interviewed William "Red" Whittaker, director and principal research scientist of the Field Robotics Center of the Robotics Institute since 1986. Finally, Lubar visited the Learning Robots Laboratory, a CMU lab devoted to developing robots that automatically improve their performance through experience. Peter S. Tanguy, CMU student, demonstrated movement of a robot arm and described task oriented vision.
The series includes two sets of supplemental tapes. Steven Lubar shot the first set of supplemental tape on July 24, 1989, at the National Bureau of Standards about its robot, "Erica." Thomas E. Wheatley and James S. Albus spoke about the robot, and offered demonstration. The second set was recorded on April 20-21, 1989, at Texas Technical University, where faculty member Jaime Cardenas-Garcia and crew videotaped the "Walking Machine Decathalon," in which the robot from the University of Maryland competed (and took second place). This supplemental sessions is comprised of four VHS tapes, which include "Rules," "Student Presentations," and "Preliminary Judging."
This collection consists of four interview sessions and two supplementary sessions, totalling approximately 12:20 hours of recordings (not including supplementary session 2), and 102 pages of transcript. Supplementary session 2 is comprised of 8:00 hours of recordings. Supplementary session 2 was not digitized.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Tsai, Lung-Wen
- Chen, Jigien
- Azarm, Shapour
- Drap, Robert
- Slutzkey, Joel
- Sivaslian, Armen
- Corley, Steven
- Krotkov, Erik
- Dowling, Kevin
- Pangels, Henning
- Bares, John
- Wettergreen, David
- Hoffman, Regis
- Whittaker, William L.
- Tanguy, Peter S.
- Albus, James S.
- Wheatley, Thomas E. (Thomas Edward), 1954-
- Lubar, Steven D., interviewer
- University of Maryland at College Park
- Carnegie-Mellon University
- Odetics Incorporated (Anaheim, California)
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 9552, Robotics Videohistory Collection