Versatran Robot Inventor Dies at Age 86
If he was still alive, this would have been my father's 87th birthday. So I thought to celebrate, I would do a retrospective on his life:
Veljko Milenkovic was born and raised in Zagreb in 1922 in what was then Yugoslavia. His mother, Ada, was German. She taught art, German, and mathematics at a gymnasium, a European school which is the equivalent of high school and the first few years of college. His father, Pavle, was a customs inspector and a passenger on the first commercial air flight in Yugoslavia, which earned him the nickname Paja Lindburgh. Stationed on the border, Pavle was possibly the first person to notice and report Hitler's troops moving in on Yugoslavia.
As a schoolboy, my dad was a classmate of the crown prince of Yugoslavia.
When Dad was a teen, WWII began. Zagreb is part of Croatia, and my dad was a Serb. His neighborhood was declared a zone where Serbs were not allowed to live, so every night my dad packed a suitcase and went across town to sleep at the home of a relative. Dad left Zagreb when his teacher looked over at him one day in class and said, "Wow. They haven't arrested you yet?" He then moved to Belgrade to stay with his father. Pavle, who had friends among the resistance, was later arrested, tortured, and executed by the Nazis.
My dad, after getting drafted for awhile into some anti communist forces, and then spending time in a refugee camp, managed to cross the border by pretending not to speak whatever language the border guard spoke. (My dad actually spoke a lot of languages.) Then dad somehow managed to get to America. There was a Serbian Monastery in Libertyville, IL outside Chicago, and that was where he went. His first job in America was as a grave digger at the monastery.
He met my mom at someone else's wedding. I think my mom was a bridesmaid. She waved to a friend, and Dad thought she was waving at him and started talking to her.
He went to school at IIT, retaking a lot of courses because he'd lost his transcripts in the war. He worked as a mechanical engineer by day and earned his Ph. D. at night.
While he was at AMF in the late 1950's and early '60's he led the design team which created the Versatran robot, which is officially the second commercially used industrial robot.
This is what I remember: a nightly ritual in the spring of 1960 when I was six years old. My mother, pregnant with my youngest brother Victor and battling nausea from morning sickness, would gingerly prepare a hot-cooked meal. Just as she would get my three-year-old brother Paul and I gathered at the table, the phone would ring. Dad would be an hour late. Mom would sigh and leave his dinner on the stove. When the hour had passed, he would call again to say he'd be another hour. He would then call a third time to say forget it, they sent out for hamburgers. Knowing he would not appear until late that night, she would shake her head. "He's out with that blonde again." That's what she called the robot.
It didn't look like a blonde:
I don't know who that guy is. He's not my dad, and he's not Harry Johnson, who was my dad's manager, who is also listed on the patents my dad took out on the robot. It's also a headless picture of the Versatran, because it doesn't include the cabinet housing the robot's brain.
The brain involved two tapes that did something which allowed you to record motions by moving the arm using a joystick. It will take about three more talks with my brother Paul before I understand how the thing worked, so I can't explain any more to you yet.
Like most new inventions, the Versatran had its little idiosyncracies. Dad once tried to work the teaching stick underhanded, forgetting that from that position, a push left would be interpreted as right by the robot. When Dad pushed the joystick, the robot arm pushed back against Dad's elbow. This made Dad push harder, which made the robot push harder. Luckily before the powerful hydraulic system pulled his arm off, Dad decided to concede and let go. (I think about this story every time I see the Suddenlink commercial about armwrestling a robot.)
I met my robot sibling in December of 1961, at the company Christmas party when I was seven years old. The Versatran, which I remember as being a sort of industrial grayish-green, stood beside a ramp with a toy car at the bottom. The robot arm picked up the car, set it on top of the ramp and let go. When the car reached the bottom of the ramp, the Versatran did it again over and over.
In the late 1970's PRAB purchased the rights to it. They call it the PRAB robot. Sadly, their version is kind of lobotomized from what it once was. Sic versatran-sit gloria.
The original Versatran could do very finely controlled tasks like duplicating a human signature. Only recently, with the advent of sophisticated computers could other robots approach its smooth movements. My brother Paul, an electrical engineer who has authored several papers with Dad, likens what Dad accomplished to doing robotics with "bearskins and stone knives" (as Mr. Spock said when he had to build a tricorder using 1930's technology), using vacuum tubes and later a few transistors, but no silicon chips.
We refer to Jules Verne type science fiction technology as steam punk. Well, Dad's robot was Sputnik punk. Speaking of science fiction, I understand the Versatran had a small role as the billiard playing robot arm in the movie Silent Running.
My dad and I never totally connected, I must confess. He was a savant when it came to robots, but socialization was not his strong suit. Still he was a humble man who always put his friends and colleagues first. I respect and love that about him. And I'm proud of the role he played in history.
Because he'd never farmed, my dad decided farming would be a great thing to do when he retired. My parents bought 100 acres in Door County, Wisconsin. They raised trees and my dad spent most of his day on a tractor mowing the acres of grass between the trunks. He and my mom also took up painting. They had several ponds dug and my father loved swimming in them.
In later years, he dealt with poor health, especially after my mom died. He had bladder cancer and dementia, dying peacefully in his sleep last April.
One night in the 1980's, my brothers and I were watching Star Trek: The Next Generation over at my parents' home.
My father entered and stared at Commander Data on the screen. "Is that supposed to be a robot?"
"He's an android," we replied in the official Baby Boomer "Aw Dad, don't be an idiot" tone of voice.
My father gave a little smirk and walked away.