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Victor Scheinman, Assembly Line Robot Inventor, Dies at 73


Victor Scheinman developed a programmable six-jointed robot that was named the Stanford Arm. Credit Stanford University Archives, Stanford School of Engineering

Victor Scheinman, who overcame his boyhood nightmares about a science-fiction movie humanoid to build the first successful electrically powered, computer-controlled industrial robot, died on Tuesday in Petrolia, Calif. He was 73.

His brother, Dr. Richard Scheinman, said the cause was complications of heart disease. He said he had been driving his brother to visit Dr. Scheinman’s home in Northern California when he apparently had a heart attack. He lived in Woodside, near Palo Alto, Calif.

Mr. Scheinman was part of Stanford University’s mechanical engineering department when, in 1969, he developed a programmable six-jointed robot that was named the Stanford Arm.

It was adapted by manufacturers to become the leading robot in assembling and spot-welding products, ranging from fuel pumps and windshield wipers for automobiles to inkjet cartridges for printers. Its ability to perform repeatable functions continuously equaled or surpassed that of human workers.

“The Scheinman Stanford Robot Arm was the forerunner of modern robots used for industrial assembly,” Stanley L. Robinson and Richard Kendall Miller wrote in a 1989 book, “Automated Inspection and Quality Assurance.”

In her book, “The Robot: The Life Story of a Technology” (2007), Lisa Nocks, wrote: “In contrast to heavy, hydraulic, single-use machines, his Stanford Arm was lightweight, electric, mutliprogrammable, and could follow random trajectories instead of fixed ones. Scheinman showed that it was possible to build a machine that could be as versatile as it was autonomous.”

In 1973, Mr. Scheinman formed Vicarm to manufacture robotic arms, then sold his design to Unimation. Unimation and General Motors later developed his design as the Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly, or PUMA. The original prototype was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 2002. Mr. Scheinman went on to help found Automatix, another early robotics company, in 1980.

A robot’s most vital role on the assembly line, Mr. Scheinman said in an interview with The New York Times in 1983, is its “capability to interface with the real world, which is not totally precise.” He predicted that while the world would remain imprecise, robots would develop “better sensors and more smarts.”

Victor David Scheinman was born on Dec. 28, 1942, in Augusta, Ga., where his father, Dr. Leonard Scheinman, was serving in the Army. After World War II, the family moved to Brooklyn and then to Riverdale in the Bronx, where his mother, the former Sera Mani, taught Hebrew school. His father was a psychiatry professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and had a private practice in Manhattan.

“My first contact with robots occurred when I went to see the movie ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ as a kid maybe about 8 years old or maybe 9 years old,” Mr. Scheinman recalled in an interview with the Robotics History Project of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

“And I was terrified by the robot in that movie and had nightmares over it,” he continued. “In fact, one night I woke up and saw the robot standing in my room. I’m convinced it was there. So I hid under the covers after that for many weeks.”

As therapy to allay his fears, his father persuaded him to build a wooden version of Gort, the 8-foot-high, laser-equipped robot from the movie, which was released in 1951 and starred Michael Rennie.

Mr. Scheinman graduated from the now-defunct New Lincoln School and enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he was 16. He graduated with a degree in aeronautics and astronautics, then worked on space and defense research, traveled and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford, where he eventually became a visiting professor.

In addition to his brother, he is survived by his wife, Sandra Jean Auerback, and his children, David and Tenaya Scheinman, from an earlier marriage that ended in divorce.

Mr. Scheinman and Ms. Auerback, a clinical social worker, were married in 2006. As recounted in their wedding announcement in The Times, Ms. Auerback made a suggestion as her birthday neared.

“Instead of having a 60th birthday party,” she asked him, “why don’t we get married and have a wedding party?”

“Why not?” he remembered responding dispassionately, remarking, “You’re talking to an engineer, not a romanticist.”

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