George Devol
He may not be a household name like Henry Ford, but it's arguable that George Devol's (above, right) work was even more influential in shaping the modern manufacturing landscape. In 1961, roughly seven years after first applying for the patent, his Unimate was put into service in a GE automobile plant. The world's first programmable, robotic arm was used to lift hot cast metal components out of a mold and stack them -- the assembly line has never been the same. Other companies soon followed suit, replacing expensive and fragile humans with mechanical labor. Devol died Thursday night in his home at the age of 99. If you're interested in getting a peek at his game-changing invention, you can find one at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

[Image credit: The Estate of George C. Devol]